The Chalet School In The Oberland : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School in the Oberland (The Chalet School, #26)The Chalet School in the Oberland by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming back to the Chalet School after some time away is the most comforting of things. Whilst my books have been in storage, I’ve been relying on public libraries and second hand bookshops and the odd, hysteria-inducing car boot sale (“Quick, they’ve got a hardback copy of Princess! You chat to him nonchalantly whilst I pretend to look calm!”).

But lo, now my books are out of storage, and I have been reunited with them, it is time to begin the great ‘let’s read the titles I’ve forgotten about’ exercise. The Chalet School In The Oberland was the first I selected; partially because it was one that I had great personal memories of, and also because I remembered it being one of Brent-Dyer’s more ‘scandalous’ novels. To quantify the last comment, scandal in the work of Brent-Dyer is an oddly nebulous and varying beast and the scandal in The Chalet School In The Oberland does not disappoint.

So where are we in this series, this country-striding, doctor-marrying, occasionally-bordering-on-the-edge-of-farce, touched with brilliance series? We’re in the Oberland and it’s not actually the Chalet School at all. This is St Mildred’s, the finishing branch, which as far as I understand it, seems to specialise in not actually grading people for the work they do, the odd evening of corporal punishment, before cancelling all education in the latter half of the term in order to put on a pantomime (“Let’s do the show right here!!”).

God I love these books.

The Chalet School in the Oberland does, however, have some greatly unique points about it which contribute to a fascinating read and an oddly tense narrative at points. Looking at the work of Brent-Dyer always makes me feel as if there’s a definitive line between the ‘Chalet World’ and the ‘real world’. The two of them very, rarely, come together easily. When they do connect, they meet head on and either create pure brilliance (The Chalet School In Exile) or pure, painful prose (Redheads at the Chalet School). They never seem to coexist comfortably for me.

And in the Chalet School in the Oberland, we sort of get to explore that tension via the conduit of Elma Conroy. She’s a defiant rebel who smokes (“meh, not so bad but we’ll have to have a chat to confirm whether that’s alright or not”) and plays cards (“OH MY GOD!”) and is engaged in a relationship with a bounder by the name of Stuart Raynor.

It’s as oblique as anything Brent-Dyer’s ever written but there’s some fairly heavy hints of inappropriate, predatorial, money-orientated intentions on the part of Stuart towards Elma. It’s very dark to read when you stop and think about it; this member of the Chalet School community (please, everyone who is anything to do with the Chalet School always gets converted, they’re worse than the Borg) is being preyed upon by a boy who does not want her for who she is. He wants her for her money. For her privileged status in life, nothing more, nothing less.

In addition to this, we have a priggish individual learning the error of her ways (a fairly similar rehash of Eustacia who remains one of my favourite characters of all time), several staff putting their feet up with a cigarette or two, a healthy serving of Dickie Christie (whom I also love, quite greatly) and lots of Peggy Bettany. Lots of Peggy Bettany. Lots. Lots.

It is, to be fair, a fairly solid Chalet School book. It features great joy, great hysteria, some incredible writing, and a spectacularly unhysterical pantomime that goes on for approximately 3503 pages.

Have I told you about how much I love these books? Because I do. I really rather hugely do.

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Further reading

Woo-hoo! It’s the end of my impromptu-theme of art books for children. To end it, I thought it might be useful to collate a few more suggestions of art books for kids  / further resources- I know this is something that I want to come back to in the future, and I thought it might be useful for anyone who wanted to do some more research  in the area. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface ….!

21 Picture books about art (I love the sound of the touch & feel one about the Mona Lisa!)

Children’s Art Books from The National Gallery

Art books from Usborne (I really love the sound of the ‘My very first art book’ series)

Exploring the great artists – 20+ art books for kids (Features the lovely Katie books here – these are very worth a look). From the same blog, I also enjoyed their piece on arts/crafts –  ‘Exploring the Great Artists’)

Kid’s books and media from the Met – I personally have just added ‘One Blue Hippo’ to my wishlist.

@areaderforlife recommended the following to me on Twitter –

I love what Zoe over at “Playing by the book” does with her blog posts – she combines her book reviews with amazing projects on arts, crafts, books, cake … pretty much anything you can think. It’s a constant inspiration (and also a constant joy). Also you need to read this post for an amazing list of artwork in children’s books – “‘The interactive Art book plus 90+ publicly displayed masterpieces of art which feature in children’s books. 

Also – here’s a picture book I reviewed earlier. “Dogs’ Night” by Meredith Hooper.

Let me know if there’s anything amazing that I’ve missed?


The Rights of the Reader : Daniel Pennac

A few quick words of introduction for this one. I’ve been looking at art books all this week and I wondered whether to include The Rights Of The Reader in that. And I think that I can (well, that’s self-evident what with this post existing and all) but to be more precise, I think that because of several things.

Art is about connecting. Words are art. Language is art. Sometimes text, language and words can be the most beautiful of things (look at Jenny Holzer or my beloved Barbara Kruger for examples of this). The concept of viewing, of looking at something and being part of it, being engaged in the moment of it and engaging in the transactional nature of this giving, of the performance, is something that translates from word to art to theatre to busking on the street corner with your friends during the Summer holidays.

Art is about viewing. Art is about being.

And sometimes it’s about being very, madly, immensely inspired.


The Rights of the ReaderThe Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fiery, passionate and beautiful, vividly eloquently so, Pennac’s fine book on the rights of the reader should be mandatory. I’ve read a lot of it before in extracts, or in the very fine poster that’s available which features the ten rights of the reader, but I’ve never read the whole thing. Which is a shame, really, but it’s something that I’ve rectified and I would urge you, if you have any interest in reading or pedagogy or cultural attitudes towards literacy, to not hold off in getting a copy of this. It’s very good. Hugely good.

So where to begin with this revalatory little book? Perhaps we begin with the quotes that I have pulled from it, feverishly underlining sections and folding down the corners, the quotes that have resonated with me and made me realise that I do not want to let this book go.

On reading aloud:

“Reading a story every evening … was a moment of communion between us, of textual absolution, a return to the only paradise that matters: intimacy. Without realizing it, we were discovering one of the crucial functions of storytelling and, more broadly speaking, of art in general, which is to offer a respite from human struggle.” (33)

On re-reading books with your children:

“Reading again isn’t about repeating yourself, it’s about offering fresh proof of a love that never dies” (58)

On reading:

“If reading isn’t about communication, it is, in the end, about sharing. But a deferred and fiercely selective kind of sharing” (87)

On not reading:

“While it’s fine for someone to reject reading, it’s totally unacceptable that they should be – of feel that they have been rejected by reading.

“To be excluded from books, even the ones you can do without, is terribly sad: a solitude within solitude” (151)

I could pull a thousand quotes from this book and keep going, I think, I could wave it in the faces of a thousand people and demand for it to be obigatory reading on a thousand curricula and I think a part of me would if I could. If I could.

And perhaps I can. Perhaps we all can. Because, when you choose to read something, when you choose to let it into your life, your world, you, you let it change you. You accept that it will. You need it. You might not know it, you might not be able to even conceptualise it, but something, deep down inside of you, needs it. Wants it. Longs for it.

This book makes me feel like I can move mountains.

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How artists see feelings : Colleen Carroll

How Artists See: Feelings: Joy, Sadness, Fear, LoveHow Artists See: Feelings: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Love by Colleen Carroll

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘How Artists See Feelings’ covers a series of artworks separated under the headings of: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Love. Under each heading, Carroll presents a simple spread of the artwork on one side and a little piece of text on the other, which tells us about the piece and asks us a few questions about it.

It’s a lovely little book, part of a bigger series called ‘How Artists See…’ and covers a range of work ranging from ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch through to ‘The Kiss’ by Constantin Brâncuși and ‘Lemon and his wife’s ghost’ by Shunbaisai Hokuei. I welcome Carroll’s choice of artworks and welcome her selections.

My main issue (and sadness) with this book is that it feels very dated now. The front cover is not the best and just throughout, it feels very much of its time. I’d really welcome a new edition along the same principles as Carroll’s text is genuinely engaging, vibrant and friendly. She has a great skill of creating a dialogue with the reader, asking them to engage in the artwork asking them to “Try [to] imagine yourself in this situation. What sounds do you hear?” and to think about “How does the heaviness of the metal help show her feelings?” I really love her stylistics here and it’s probably because of this, that I think this book still has a place in todays dialogue around art. Don’t look past it! It’s worth picking up.

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Framed : Frank Cottrell Boyce

FramedFramed by Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I adore Frank Cottrell Boyce. Millions, to me, remains one of the great pieces of perfect children’s literature. It is the book that I would have written if I could, if it had not already been written to such perfection beforehand.

Framed is a similarly joyful thing. Dylan lives in Manod, a small town in the depths of Wales which pretty much defined the phrase ‘the middle of nowhere’. He’s the last boy in the town as well, following one family moving away, and now all he has to do to keep himself busy is maintain the customer log at the family business – the petrol garage. He and his family are struggling, and then one day some unexpected visitors come to town (and they’ve got some of the most priceless pieces of art in the country tucked up in their lorries). Framed is a story about how art touches us, how colour touches us, and the transformative power of such things.

It is, more than a little bit, very lovely. I adore how Boyce writes about family and relationships; I love how he embraces the awkward frustration and rampant love of a close-living, tight-knit family and spins this out to create a whole cast of vivid, believable characters. Boyce is so good at this, so good.

The art part of this book is a delight too. Through various circumstances (which I’ll not spoil), Dylan ends up being viewed as an art expert, primarily for his ability to wax lyrical about Raphael, Donatello, Michealango and Leonardo. These are, as the observant amongst you may realise, also the names of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and with a new film coming out, this might be a lovely book to sneak into a bookshelf right now).

I love Boyce. I love what he does. I love that he writes everything he touches with such utter, ineffable grace, love and skill. He’s a gift.

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What is Contemporary Art? A Children’s Guide : Jacky and Suzy Klein

What Is Contemporary Art? a Guide for KidsWhat Is Contemporary Art? a Guide for Kids by Jacky Klein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t know much about contemporary art for a long time. I didn’t know that it even existed, in a way. I tought art and I thought about the traditional images of art; the oil paintings on the wall, the statues in the gallery, the black and white photographs hung in a row.

But then I went to university and accidentally started to specialise in the subject and my mind exploded. Cindy Sherman. Tracey Emin. Barbara Kruger. Jenny Holzer. Richard Serra. Rineke Dijkstra. Douglas Gordon. Shirin Neshat. All of them doing things with text and image that I longed to do, that I hadn’t known it was okay for me to do, that I hadn’t known that I wanted to do, and now that I did know this, I knew that I would never let it go. That this way of writing, of seeing, of thinking, was something that I liked, something that I subscribed wholly too and something that made my writing better.

It changed my life. Can you tell? It’s because of that that I have a strong interest in art books for children because, in a way, I want them to have the opportunity to have that feeling. I want their mind to be blown. I want them to realise that the creative boundaries that may have been imposed on them (“every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and you need to know this before you begin”) can, could and maybe should be broken.

‘What is Contemporary Art?’ is a challenging book for me to review in that I felt there were certain areas of it that worked really well. I love that it exists, firstly. I love that it’s selected and discussed some bold and challenging work (“Adjustable Wall Bra” by Vito Acconci, for one, and “Untitled (bed)” by Rachel Whiteread, for another). I love that it’s not afraid of asking children to look at Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol. The curation of pieces for this book is really, really strong.

And yet, in another way, it’s a little bit frustrating. The endpapers seem a wasted space, an apparent abstract design on the front, which we come to realise is “Butterfly Kisses” by Janine Antoni and then get to see again when we come to finish the book. I’d have welcomed some sense of experimentation with these pages rather than what feels like a slight redundancy in using the same image twice.

I also had some difficulty with the descriptions. There’s a little bit of ‘artspeak’ in there which, I suspect, could lead to a prerequisite of ‘why’ questions (both a positive and a negative, but one that I suspect would frustrate a cynical mindset). Sentences such as “his chessboard is no longer a battlefield, but a landscape of the imagination” beg to be challenged and discussed (which is again both a positive and a negative, come to think of it.)

One final thing to note though is that it has a really good and useful glossary covering such terms as ‘assemblage’, ‘found media’ and ‘urban intervention’. This is great, though the highlighting of these words in the body of the book has suffered due to the advent of internet speak. They appear in the text *like this* which gives an odd emphasis to terms and phrases. I’d hope that this maybe gets reviewed in a newer edition.

So where do we sit with this book? It’s good, it does have some very good points, but I found it frustrating and a little confusing with the voice. In a way, I’d have liked it pitched younger and a little ‘freer’ with some descriptions in order to both loosen up the stiffer parts of the book and to also broaden the appeal of the book and the artwork within.

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The Five Senses : Hervé Tullet

The Five SensesThe Five Senses by Hervé Tullet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been unpacking a lot of my books recently from eternal storage and amidst the general delight of rediscovering old favourites and all the Angela Brazils that I couldn’t remember I had, was this beautiful little book.

Tullet’s introduction to the five senses is a vivid, gorgeous thing. Art books for children are sometimes difficult things that don’t quite know how to deal with what they’re positing to deal with. Do you talk down? Do you talk up? Do you talk across? How do you position your textual voice when you’re talking about something as intensely personal as art?

This book sort of circumspects all that difficult discussion by presenting a series of paintings, cuttings, gluings(interventions?) that explore and dance around the topic. Each section is introduced in a similar manner; bright white background with a black painted ‘touch’ or ‘sound’ before descending into vivid individualistic moments on each page. A series of eyes. A clash of hands. A piece of wood (watch out for splinters). A distorting mirror. Anything, really, and that’s the great joy of this. It plays and dances with everything and does it with a great democracy.

Obviously there are limitations in talking about ‘smell’ or ‘hear’ when we’re looking at a book because of the format of the book. Tullet’s approach to ‘solving’ this is lovely. His images are so evocative, so all consuming that they act as an incentive to take the art out of the book and work with it in the real world. Sit by the side of the road when looking at the traffic page. Walk through the woods when touching the wood page. There’s a lot of activity that can be taken from a book like this and that’s the great joy of it. It’s a book to dip in, to explore and to go back and forth in and to not be afraid of.

It’s a book that acts as a very lovely and very accessible introduction to the art / design world. Mimic the drawings with your kids. Press fingers into paints and smear them along (designated!) walls. Draw around hands and collage them all together. One thing I always did (and still do!) was to make a sort of ‘mood’ book where I stuck in postcards, ticket stubs, photos, leafs – anything, really, which inspired or struck a chord with me. You can see a couple of sample images from this in the slideshow below.

These sort of things also act as a great inspiration for creative writing – use a page as a prompt, an inspiration. What does it make you feel? What does it make you taste?

Tullet’s a joy. I’ll be keeping this one around for a fair bit longer, I think.

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