#kidbkgrp recap – Re/reading classic children’s literature

Last night, we talked about re/reading classic children’s literature. It’s a topic that seems perenially interesting when you apply it to children’s literature, and it’s a topic which is perenially difficult to actually define. What is a classic? Who decides a classic? Can classic status be revoked? How do books become classics? And how do you deal with ‘difficult’ content when re-reading classics?

You can find the storify of the chat here and here’s a link to the previous chats.

The next chat is on August 7th and we talk about responsibility in children’s literature. See you there?

Boy In The Tower : Polly Ho-Yen

Boy In The TowerBoy In The Tower by Polly Ho-Yen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Boy In The Tower appealed to me mainly through that instantly evocative title. It’s a rich one that, and one which speaks a lot about the instant power of titles. Note the lack of a ‘The’. It’s not The Boy In The Tower. It’s ‘Boy’. And I liked that. That sort of ‘woah, wait, this could be any boy’ feel in this tower. That sort of global tension of the title straight away, before I’ve even read the book.

So what to make of Boy In The Tower? If I were to tell you that it’s reminiscent of Attack The Block, and War of the Worlds then that would sum it up well. It is the debut novel of Ho-Yen and it is, I think a book that is not without issues, but it is also a book that made me devour it and realise how much I loved it. It’s a contradictory experience, so I think what I’m going to do now is tell you more about this dreamy, odd, almost fairy-tale book and what it does (and by the way, what it does, it does really well).

Ade lives at the top of a tower block. And he loves it, he really does, because he can see the world spilt out beneath him and remind himself that he’s part of this world. He needs to do this last part, because his mother’s ill. She spends most days sleeping now, and doesn’t go outside. It’s not safe. And when the strange triffid-esque plants (nicknamed Bluchers) appear, and the towers around them start to fall down, the world becomes very unsafe. Everyone starts to leave. Ade’s best friend leaves, but Ade can’t. He won’t abandon his mother. He can’t. And so we begin on this story of seige, with plants that can bring a tower block down and kill, and a boy who thinks he’s very much alone.

It’s a brilliant premise and once Ho-Yen hits her stride, it’s delivered with a strong and rich skill that bodes very well. I found the first third of the story a little difficult and ‘scene-setting-y’ (so not a word, but you know what I mean) but when the story kicks into gear, it kicks in high and hard and fast.

I loved this book when it worked and in a way I loved it even when it didn’t fully grab me. Ho-Yen’s strengths, for me, lie in people and the dynamics of character and relationship. And it’s when those relationships are placed in immediate and vivid peril, that she shines.

I’d recommend this for confident readers starting to hunger for something big and tense but still within their reach. I’d also maybe read this as a lead in towards authors like Jules Verne or HG Wells.

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The Wilderness of Children’s Literature

“Let the wild rumpus start!” 

- Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

What is children’s literature right now? Is it vile and dangerous?  Is it something that adults shouldn’t even be reading at all?

I don’t want to tell you about what you should and shouldn’t read. But what I will do is this. 

I will support you in making choices, and I will help you to make those choices, and I will help you to understand those choices. 

And I will stand where I am right now, on the ragged edge, and tell you about the wilderness that exists in children’s literature and why I am glad it is there. 

You find the wilderness in the moment which holds your heart still for an entire page. The moment when the author goes there, right there, and then goes that little bit further until suddenly you realise that you can’t see the word for the tears that are falling down your face. That’s the wilderness, right there, right then. That’s the moment where somebody acknowledges how wild, untamed and how uncontrollable childhood can be.

Teenage life can be full of such terror, and that terror has a right to be understood and explored.

The books that live in the wilderness make their own space in the world, hanging on the edge of textual conformity and stylistics, for they are strong wild creatures. Poetic, vivid, acute, heartbreaking. Brilliant, too. 

They matter, these wild untameable books. 

And so do you. 

You can’t navigate the wilderness without knowing who and what you are. And that’s something I believe in, I believe in choice. I believe in readers knowing who they are, why they react to something, and trusting their own judgement. I believe in empowerment. I believe in strength. I believe in literacy opening the door to the world.

But what if you don’t? 

What if you’re lost in the wilderness and can’t see the way out?

Well, my pledge to you is this: I will cut down the grass when it grows too high. I will take your hand and show you how to escape. I will bring you food and water, and I will sit with you and I will stay. I will weed the ground around you, and tear down the undergrowth when it grows too big, and I will help you to the other side.

I believe in the wilderness, yes, but I also believe in being able to stand in it, and being able to see the light beyond it. 

I believe in you. 

Liar and Spy : Rebecca Stead

Liar and SpyLiar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Liar And Spy is a subtle, smart book and one which I think has that oddly exhilarating feeling of being something much bigger than it is and it is something which feels classic, really, as though it’s destined to be around for a very long time and referred back to with the wise nod and comment of, “And this is how it’s done well in middle grade literature.”

So, what is this wise and funny book? It is the story of Georges (the S is silent) who’s been named after his parents favourite painter Georges Seurat. Things aren’t going amazingly for Georges; his father’s been laid off, his mother is pulling double shifts at the hospital, and they’ve had to move to a new home in a different neighbourhood. In his new home, Georges meets Safer and Candy, two local kids, and it’s through his developing friendship with them – Safer in particular – that sees Georges join ‘Spy Club’ and determine how he’s going to face his future.

It is that, then this book, but there’s a lot more besides that and it’s all done with an exquisite and elegant simplicity which makes me gape with wonder on a reread. Liar and Spy is basically a lesson in voice and narrative and it’s one that needs to be soaked in and reread if possible, with an eye on all the subtle skill of Stead. And she is subtle but god, she’s skilled. This book is clever and big and it maches you ache. What more do you want? It is life wrapped up in bookish clothing.

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The Secret Garden : Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret GardenThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Secret Garden is a glorious, wonderful book. For a book published over one hundred years ago (1910), I am surprised at how readable and how genuinely heartwarming it is. There’s a richness to this story that survives and thrives even with the elements of the text that are perhaps more dated than others and the other elements that are just a little wince-worthy.

I won’t excuse the Yorkshire-isms present in The Secret Garden, though I will acknowledge this is a strong pet peeve of mine. I have such difficulty with stories that write accents and speech in the local dialect, and yet I think that I even forgive this of the Secret Garden. It’s important to remember the time it was written and the context of when it was written and to realise that stylistic tics like this are, perhaps, intended to create a very different effect.

So if you do not know of The Secret Garden, what can I tell you of it? It’s the story of spoilt, grumpy Mary Lennox who is sent to England following the death of her parents in India. To Mary, England is a foreign world and she doesn’t understand one iota of it. To be sent from India, where she had an ayah and servants, to Misslethwaite Manor, the most Yorkshire of Yorkshire establishments, is one that would affect the most ‘normal’ of children but to Mary, it is a baffling and confusing fate. She doesn’t understand the language, doesn’t know what a ‘moor’ is, and doesn’t even know how to dress herself properly.

Misslethwaite Manor is a difficult and confused place, hiding secrets of it own. Mr Craven, the lord of the Manor, is mourning the death of his beloved wife and has closed up a part of the garden that she used. One night, Mary wakens to hear screaming and crying coming from a part of the house. Upon exploring, she discovers that she is – well, I won’t spoil the rest of it, but her discovery is one of the things that helps to bring her back to the world.

There are a thousand, thousand themes and layers to this madly brilliant book. It reminds me of a cake sometimes, one of those gargantuan multi-layered things you see in a patisserie, being held together by air and cream and the arcane arts of a patissier. There’s space inside it, and maybe a layer of some sort of coulis, or some wafers, and every time you look at it, you wonder how it’s held together but then you realise that it is held together, and it just can’t be any other way.

This is The Secret Garden. It is a book that is different every time you look at it, and it is a book that gives you something different every time you read it.

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Binny for Short : Hilary McKay

Binny for ShortBinny for Short by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to write about family, I think sometimes. It’s a thing that a lot of people do for families, in their odd and pained and viciously real shapes, are part of all our lives and they are something which remain intensely personal. You have secret words, shared histories, internal jokes that nobody, despite however hard they try, may ever fully understand. And you can’t ever understand theirs, even if you understand the full shade of their humour, cut from their life, you may never fully see the shadows in that.

It’s hard to write about family but I think, perhaps, that Hilary McKay is superlative in how she does it. There’s nobody quite like McKay in how she catches that oddly loving and vibrant family dynamic, the way that you love-hate-love your siblings and hate them again, all in the same breath. And there’s nobody quite like McKay who swings you from laughter, through to a rush of love for the entire world, through to catching your breath with tears and wanting everything to just be alright and okay and for them to make their way through this.

McKay is a joy, pure and simple, and in Binny for Short she’s on fine and almost masterful form. The titular Binny (Belinda – Bin, Bel, Binny for short) is a fiery and rather lovely creation. She’s stubborn and grumpy and resolutely of herself. Her childhood is rather idyllic and lovely but following the death of her father, everything changes. Her beloved dog, Max, is given away due to the machinations of Binny’s hated Auntie Violet. Things rise to a head between Binny and Auntie Violet at a funeral, and following a series of unfortunate events (TM Lemony Snicket) Binny is left with Auntie Violet’s home by the sea.

The idea of a home by the sea is something that’s been explored in children’s literature before; the wild and entrancing ‘otherness’ of the seaside will remain eternally glorious but I think here, coupled with Binny’s frenemy Gareth(I loathe that expression but it rather fits her initial encounters with him), her wide-eyed love of the gorgeous Liam and of her love of her new world in general, McKay has created something rather ridiculously lovely.

This book is rich story-telling, ridiculously so, and it is full of life and it is almost a joy to read and I want more, please, for I am greedy for work like this.

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Olivia’s First Term : Lyn Gardner

Olivia's First Term (Stage School, #1)Olivia’s First Term by Lyn Gardner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh it’s taken me too long to get to this book.

I first heard about Olivia’s First Term a fair while ago, reading descriptions and reviews which referenced the glorious heights of Ballet Schools (coughpetrovaruleseverythingcough) and I thought – I need to read those books. And at last, I have, and I can confirm for you that there is much joy in this book.

Olivia’s First Term is the first of a healthy series, which sees Olivia and her sister Eel being taken to meet their grandmother, Alicia. Olivia has never met Alicia who blames Olivia’s father for the death of her daughter. This estrangement is brought to a hasty and painful cessation when Jack, a talented tightrope walker, brings Olivia and Eel to the school to meet Alicia. Jack is poverty stricken and needs a home for the girls whilst he plans the greatest money-making stunt of his career.

It’s a glorious premise and one torn from the pages of classic children’s literature tradition. There’s elements of Ballet Shoes here but also Sadlers Wells, A Little Princess and even Malory Towers and a little bit of the thematic overtones of The Secret Garden (girl finds place in world, discovers who she is and that she has value, etc, etc).

Olivia’s First Term is another book which confirms to me my suspicions about the healthy UK Middle Grade scene at present; it is good, and there are good and great books out there marking their presence on the literary landscape. I love how this book has something quite classic feeling to it and yet mixes in a Britain’s Got Talent-esque stage show and a (almost moustache-twirling) bad girl villain. It’s a joyous thing and rather lovely, and I’m pleased I got to it at long last.

And in addition to all of that, I have a new addition for my list of children’s books which feature Gifted and Talented Characters(a pithy title, there, I know) spreadsheet. Check it out!

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