Archie’s War – Marcia Williams

Archie's WarArchie’s War by Marcia Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been planning to review more non-fiction on the blog for a while. A lot of it stems from inspiration provided by conversations with my peers both on and off, and the slightly uncomfortable awareness that non-fiction is something I very, rarely cover.

A lot of that stems from my own personal experience with these books. I’ve always read, and I’ve always read fast. There simply wasn’t enough space in the average non-fiction book to hook me. And then with the advent of the internet (ha, I sound ancient!), that quickness translated into online literacies and non-fiction was something that I rarely paid attention to. It just didn’t fit into my reading pattern. And I think a lot of that still bears weight today – the quickness, the expectation of a text to provide an all round reading experience and to provide it now. Why would we read non-fiction when there’s the entire internet at our fingertips?

Well, I think we would read and still need non-fiction for books like this. I’m a great believe in understanding the process of reading itself; understanding why you react to something in the way you do, understanding how you approach something, even understanding how you read a page – all of this helps to form your critical confidence. And it’s a confidence that translates into so many other disciplines. Learning how to interact with, learning how to decode text, teaches us how to understand systems, sequential reasoning, cause and effect and so on and so forth.

Archie’s War is a wondrous thing and it’s a wonder that will last and last, I think, primarily because of the multi-faceted appeal of it. It’s an appeal that starts on the back page where Williams thanks Archie for his scrapbook and wishes the reader ‘best-browsing.’ That’s such a clever, special touch right there and it’s one which is underlined by the front cover which proclaims: “By ME – Archie Albright”. It’s bringing the book into this lovely, clever space where it’s almost read as a ‘found object’, an artefact, as opposed to being ‘written about the past’. And that connection to the source, the touch and pull nature of the scrapbook, and the carefully coloured in figures, all of that starts to reinforce the precious nature of this book. It is Archie’s scrapbook. It’s so – crafted, so carefully, wonderfully put together by him. I love it.

So the tangibility of this book is beautiful, the weight of it, the truth of it is all someting we get given before we’ve even opened the page. And when we do, we’re given a lovely hybrid of comic strip, stuck in objects and fold out letters – all of which make the reading a continual joy. You move left, right, up, down – you interact with the text and you get involved in it. You’re an active reader, you’re an engaged reader – you cannot read Archie’s War passively. This is smart, clever stuff and it’s stuff which is making me sad that it’s taken this long for me to talk about non-fiction.

Another thing to note about Archie’s War is that there is a lot of humanity in this book. Williams’ style is warm and caring and truthful. She weaves fact and story together and creates a narrative which teaches (and it does teach a lot), but never sounds preachy. Some of the spreads are breathtaking and made me quite generally look again at topics which I thought I knew about.

The final thing is that a book like this is full of inspiration for follow up activities across pretty much every subject out there. I particularly enjoyed this book trailer I found on Youtube.

I hope that I’ll be reviewing more non-fiction. It’s definitely part of my plans. And in a way, I hope they’re all as quietly inspirational and as brilliant as Archie’s War.

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The physicality of reading

It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog for the past few days, primarily because I am working a lot on book two. Book one is out in the great wide world doing things, and so I have shifted my attentions to book two. Book two is a big, heart-mash of a book; it’s not an easy one to write. It is one which, I think, I have had to write (as I have with book one), but it is interesting to me how physical the writing of book two is proving for me.

And that is making me think of things about the physicality of reading, and of how we can feel a text and how we can experience it, in so many ways, how the words can fall off the page and be felt in our hearts and our heads.

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Stories of World War One : (ed) Tony Bradman

Stories of World War OneStories of World War One by Tony (Comp) Bradman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard of this compilation several weeks ago and the names of those involved made me sit up and pay attention. Anything which features Adele Geras is something great and joyful to me. Anything which features Adele Geras, Jamila Gavin, Malorie Blackman, Geraldine McCaughrean, Nigel Hinton and more, is something that is guaranteed to grab my attention.

Edited by Tony Bradman, it is a collection of short stories that address the first world war from a world of diverse and astute angles. Each story is introduced by the author, and I was struck by the personal connections that so many of us still retain to these events, one hundred years ago. Families are torn and scarred and affected by war, and these are not things which are lightly forgotten. Nor should they be forgotten. Children’s Literature (and by children’s, I am sweepingly including Young Adult so do forgive me for the generalisation) has a great power in how it can give you awful things, painful things, but also give you a framework in how to deal with, and to understand, and to live through those things.

There is a lot in this book, and a lot, I feel, which can and should incite discussion. Though I’m no historian (I get a little too, how shall we say this, creative with the facts), it’s clear to see that each story has been carefully researched and is full of detail. It’s not obnoxious, didactic detail either, and it would never be with authors of this calibre.

These stories are also about love. The people we love, the places we love, the sacrifices we make for who and what we love and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves in the name of love. There are moments in some of the stories (I’m looking at you Malorie Blackman) which are so simple, so awful, that I finished them and had to pause to think and breathe and think and breathe and then to read again.

That’s what a good compilation like this can do. The shortness of the stories, and what’s more, the accessibility of the stories, makes each a beautiful little moment in an awful, painful world. They are painterly, and lovely, and very much worthwhile.

(And I still adore how Adele Geras writes love. There is nobody out there, quite like her, who can catch that moment when you look at somebody and then look at them again and realise that they are everything, but everything that you have ever wanted).

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Happy Birthday Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

It’s hard sometimes to quantify the influence that Brent-Dyer has had on my life. Clearly there are the obvious factors, such as my longing for every doctor to be both good in a crisis and rather dashing (and also a solid lump of comfort), and the fact that I now know enough German to order coffee and cakes and that I need to be careful of how much a cup of coffee costs in Swiss stations.

But on a more serious note, I think it’s in the way that she told me that children’s literature could do great and magnificent things.

I believe, very much, in the power of literature. You find your voice through reading. You find yourself through reading. You find yourself and your voice and you find out who and what you can be. I read children’s literature for a long time, but it was only in the past few years that I came to realise, and to be able to verbalise, how important that is.

And that, so much of that, is built on Brent-Dyer and her school of nations, her families of a hundred or more children with different coloured hair and eyes, her St Bernards, her ‘girls which keep falling off of mountains’ and of a voice that spoke in the darkness of world war two of acceptance, forgiveness, and truth.

The Chalet School was a multilingual school. A multi-faith school. A school where girls were allowed to be bold, and brave, and who they were and who they could be. That empowerment still astounds me. The way that Brent-Dyer, even in her painful, tired, last books was so concerned with letting her girls grow up and be strong, confident woman (and not spineless jellyfish).

She has given me so much. She has given me the support to write books about girls. About girls, and about women, and the golden, brilliant, lovely relationships between them. She has given me moments that have still, somehow, never been surpassed in my reading life. She has given me other moments which have made me cry and fold and hunt for my own vibrant orange handkerchief to stem my tears.

This is what a good author can do. Heck, this is even what a bad author can do and Brent-Dyer had her moments of both. This is what an author can do when you connect with them. This is what happens when you read and the gap between the page and you narrows to the extent that

This is why I believe that books are an opener of doors. That they are a gateway to the world and to beyond. This is why I will fight for the right for people to read, and to read what they want. It is for moments like this when I think back to the Chalet School that I dropped in the bath by mistake and patched it back together with tape and panic. It is for moments when I think how a reader can be made. How they can be formed. How they can be built and how they can be helped and how they can be saved, even by a woman who I have never met  and who has been dead for 18,827 days.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, you and I, and it is right to raise a glass every now and then.

Thank you EBD.

Trouble : Non Pratt

TroubleTrouble by Non Pratt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Trouble is the debut novel from Non Pratt and tells the story of Hannah and her pregnancy. There’s no spoilers here; this is a book about pregnancy and identity and inevitability, in a way, all summed up through the glorious, glorious front cover. You can’t see from the image, but the reverse of the book is pink and it is just a perfectly put together book.

So Hannah is pregnant. She has a reputation. She has a father who doesn’t want to know about his soon to be born child. But she also has Aaron; new boy, transfer student.

Father.

Aaron volunteers to act as father to Hannah’s child for reasons that are revealed throughout the book (sensitively, beautifully so) and Hannah says yes. It is a situation which surprises both of them. It is a situation which makes both of them.

It’s a sort of perennial topic in young adult literature I think, the unplanned for pregnancy, and yet I can maybe count on one hand the books that do it well. That explore the truth to the topic; that give both light and shade to it. That acknowledge that every decision has a positive and a negative, and that there are real people involved, every step of the way. Mary Hooper’s Megan books do this, but I struggle for others. I struggle so much.

Until now. Trouble is a book with so much heart in it, so much love, and so much respect for the characters. Pratt writes with a sort of lovely truth (there is language, there is sex – bear this in mind if you need to in your context) and she writes it all with a sort of intensely sensitive and light brilliance that makes great waves of this story crash into you. I cried, several times, at this book, and I did so at moments that I was not expecting. Moments that span out of the text and hit me and made me think – well, yes, that’s exactly what character x would do.

Trouble is the sort of story that I think tells you who and what people are – and believes in what they can be and what they could be.

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