In pursuit of perfection

I’ve been thinking about the act of reading itself, how sometimes I long for it and need it, and I’ve been wondering why that is. In a way, it’s a sort of hunger. I’ve spoken about it previously on this blog, but I sort of think that reading is a form of addiction. It’s a never-ending search for the heartblow of perfection, delivered when you least expect it.

My highs? I remember them. My catalysts. My talismans. My addictions. The things that started me on this road.

The first ‘death-bed’ scene that made me fold, lose myself, and break down? Gay Lambert at the Chalet School. Here’s my review. EBD’s oeuvre is in one way based around the death-bed scene, but there’s something about the one in this book (spoilers sweetie) that gets me. Breaks me. Always.

The first panel that got me into comics? This. It’s from Note from the Underground and shows the moment after Buffy’s basically gone Super-Slayer and is experiencing an intervention from her Slayer sisters. The Wikipedia precis makes this sound like a hideous book, but it’s truly not. These panels are perfection; they take the Slayer stereotype, what Buffy’s been doing since the book began, and they flip it. Just like that. It’s elegant, simple, and delivers a whole  level of redemption for Buffy herself. It’s beautiful.

1. S: “Welcome Back”
2. B: “I never really went anywhere-” S: “Didn’t you?” B: “Well, if you mean to the “angry place”, then I guess I did”
3. B: “You guys wanted me to chill, huh? We all learn – sooner or later – while we’re alive or after we’re dead … we all learn it’s not about slaying…”
4: B: “It’s about saving…”

The bit of writing that made me love Lorna Hill forever and forgive her all her rubbish later books? This. “I felt that she’d have been even more pleased with my arabesque could she have seen it today. The beauty all around me did something to me inside. I can’t describe what it was, but it made me want to turn my arabesque into something better than it had been before. I wanted to express in my dancing the lovely effect of the sunlight flickering through the trees in the wood, the delicate green of the larches, the grace of the foxgloves growing on the Roman Wall that marched side by side with the road just here.” A Dream of Sadlers Wells (1972:87)

The first stories that made me? Magic, myth, and history. I remember being sat on my dad’s lap, and listening to him read aloud Roger Lancelyn Green’s entire back catalogue. King Arthur and his knights, Odysseus of Troy, and Robin Hood. Learning my stories, my myths and your legends, grounded me and gave me roots. It pushed me onto Robin Jarvis and his awesome Wyrd Museum, it pushed me to Adele Geras and her superb sagas of womanhood – Troy, Ithaka, Dido, it pushed me onto finding Richard the Lionheart’s tomb, and it pushed me to running round the city walls of York and seeing Saxons

So thanks. Thanks for getting me this far. Thanks for making me who I am, thanks for making me be able to chat about Noel Streatfield to complete strangers, to stand on the side of a lake in Austria and nerd out to immense levels, thank you for making me able to reccomend Alex T Smith to strangers, thank you for letting me stand in the bookshop and fall into discussions over the joy, the utter joy, of Herve Tullet.

Thank you.

Here’s to the high.

An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part five)

Yay, we did it! This is the final list of my fabulous fifty titles chosen with no rhyme or reason save their general awesomeness! And here (part one, part two, part three, part four) is where you can see all the previous posts that got us to this point. Now, on with the show!

Little Women – Lousia May Alcott

There’s something very eternal about Little Women and I think it’s one of the rites of passage for any reader, and one that remains particularly acute for female readers. Whilst certain elements may be skippable (I’ll never have any issues with anybody who switches off during the Pilgrims Progress shenanigans), there are other moments in this book that lock you to the page.

Similar to : Eight Cousins

Mr Galliano’s Circus – Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton gets a bad rap these days and I think that’s a bit of a shame. For every ‘Six Bad Boys’, there’s a Mr Galliano’s Circus. I always sort of wonder if she was more comfortable about writing about animals then people. There’s a delight and a freshness to this story that remains appealing.

Similar to : Circus Shoes (Noel Streatfield)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

This book is epic. There’s a perpetually late rabbit, potions, bitch-Queens, and a stoner cat. And much, much more. It’s epochal.

Similar to : Peter Pan

The Giraffe, and the Pelly and Me – Roald Dahl

Possibly the funniest story about windowcleaning *ever*, this book is an utter joy. It’s one of the Dahl titles that doesn’t seem to be as well known as some of his others, but it happily stands on a par with them. It’s ace.

Similar to : Spike Milligan’s nonsense poetry

Crank – Ellen Hopkins

Written in crystal clear and jagged free verse, this is a very unique book. It’s the story of Kristina and her slow fall into drug addiction. Hopkins writes with painful heart and truth, and actually based a lot of this book around her own daughter and her addiction to crystal meth. A hard, painful, real read full of hurt.

Similar to : Melvin Burgess

Henderson’s Boys : The Escape – Robert Muchamore

The Henderson’s Boy series form backstory behind the amazing CHERUB books by the same author. The Escape is the first in the series and a genuinely brilliant title. It’s almost violently readable and incredibly addictive.

Similar to : the CHERUB books

The Railway Children – E Nesbit

E Nesbit was pretty amazing. This book is stunning. And it’s got a part in it that makes me crumble and cry every time I read it. Plus, Bobbie is one of the most fascinating female literary heroines probably ever.

Similar to : The Famous Five

Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce

If you’ve not read any Philippa Pearce, here’s the place to start (and start you must). She was a very quietly brilliant author and this novel is stunning. Tom is sent away from home to live under quarantine with his Aunt and Uncle. Whilst in his new home he discovers that the house itself and the garden has a whole new side of it come midnight…

Similar to : Charlotte Sometimes

And Tango Makes Three – Justin Richardson

Adorable, gorgeously illustrated, and full of love; ‘Tango’ is the baby penguin adopted by Roy and Silo two male penguins at the zoo. It’s based on true events and is, in a very quiet way, rather amazing.

Similar to : Nothing. This is very gorgeous.

So what’s going to be number 50?

Well, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’m not going to put a fiftieth because I sort of have a theory that the best book you’ve ever read is yet to come. That’s the joy about reading books – there’s always something really rather magnificent out there and it’s just waiting for you to find it. So what are you waiting for? Off you go … ;)

An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part four)

The Princess Diaries – Meg Cabot

I love these. They’re the ugly duckling tale of Mia Thermopolis who, during that first year of awkward High School-ness, discovers she’s actually the heir to the throne of Genovia. Essentially, Mia’s a princess. She’s a funny, gorgeously engaging narrator who you can’t help but root for. Plus Micheal is *adorable* in the books and probably my first guy-book-crush.

Similar to : the rest of the series

A Horse Called Wonder – Joanna Campbell

These books blew my mind. We only got the first four or so in my local bookshop and then, on a family holiday to America, I discovered the truth. There weren’t just four books in the series. THERE WERE MILLIONS. This horsey saga of life on a racing farm spanned generations of people, of horses, and of hot jockey types. It was like Sunset Beach (look it up on Youtube) and The Saddle Club all in one. It was AMAZING.

Similar to : Sunset Beach + horses. Like I said, you really need to look it up.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle

A classic. It’s the story of a caterpillar who eats loads of stuff, getting bigger all the time, before eventually turning into a butterfly. There’s a lovely simplicity to the story, coupled with lots of holes for fingers to be poked through, and it practically begs to be read out loud.

Similar to : Herve Tullet / Mr Men

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Oh, this book. It’s written in tight, restrained prose full of spooky horror at every step. It’s unnerving, and it’s edgy and it’s brilliant. A family is murdered by “the man Jack” but the toddler survives. He finds himself in a graveyard, there adopted by the resident ghosts, and named Bod. Bod grows up in the graveyard but the man Jack is never far behind – and he wants to finish what he started.

Similar to : When you walk home at night, and hear a twig crack, but there’s nobody there.

Troy – Adele Geras

This is a very beautifully written book, all from the perspective of women locked in Troy during the great siege. Geras has  a gift of writing female characters very, very well and handles them with great restraint. Even though most of us already know how this story ends, you can’t help but be swept up in it again.

Similar to : Ithaka (Adele Geras)

Misty of Chincoteague

Misty of Chincoteague – Marguerite Henry

This is one of the most wildly romantic horse stories out there. The wild horses of Chincoteague Island are round up, and their colts sold off. One of those colts is Misty. I remember this book genuinely blowing my mind – and there’s a whole saga of them to enjoy.

Similar to : Black Beauty

For Love of a Horse – Patricia Leitch

So. You’re eleven. You’re stubborn. You’ve got red hair. You’re moving to the wilds of Scotland. You visit a circus. You see a wild Arabian steed. And then, just as you’re getting near to your new home, you witness a road accident – involving the circus van that carries the selfsame horse. WHAT DO YOU DO? Well, you do what Jinny Manders does and you get your horse and you fight for her. These books are stunning and quite unusual in that they dispense with the blunt practical knowledge that tends to characterise a Pullein-Thompson book and shift towards a mixture of near-pagan mysticism. Amazing books. I want them back.

Similar to : the rest of the series

The Fashionista Books – Sarra Manning

I have a love of America’s Next Top Model. And these books are the books that Tyra wishes she could write, but can’t. Sarra Manning’s series of four books, all taking the viewpoint of different characters, are brilliant. These are sharp, funny, and brilliant books.

Similar to : the Wholahay ANTM incident (aka the best moment ever)

War Horse – Michael Morpurgo

I’ve written of my love for this book before so I’ll try not to rehash things here. Essentially, if you’re at all interested in horses, families, love, heartbreak, emotionally satisfying endings, get to this book asap.

Similar to : Black Beauty (God, Black Beauty really was quite genre-defining wasn’t it!)

Bedknob and Broomsticks – Mary Norton

Mary Norton also wrote the Borrowers but I decided to plump for Bedknob and Broomsticks as my choice for this list. Whilst some elements of B and B read very poorly today for the racist connotations (viz. the Cannibals), it remains a fascinating and intensely readable book. Written in the middle of World War Two (1943), it also has a lot of intriguing social commentary (particularly about life as a single woman) tucked away in between all the hijinks.

Similar to : The Worst Witch

An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part three)

The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle

I came to this after watching the amazing animated film (I’m ALIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE) and fell in love. It’s a fantasy classic that tells the story of the last unicorn and her journey to find all the others of her kind. It shifts from pantomine, to pathos, to heart-breaking. Beautiful.

Similar to : the Last Unicorn movie (which is still a treat but is very scary in places so be warned if you watch it with littlies)

The Chalet School in Exile – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Although this is a few titles on in the series, it is one of the best pieces of wartime children’s literature you will ever read. Brent-Dyer’s attitude and treatment of the Nazis remains stunning and her invention of the Peace League as a way for women to fight war is ideologically miles ahead of its time. Amazing, thought-provoking book. (Ignore the hideous cover!)

Similar to : the rest of the Chalet School series. Start with The School at the Chalet.

Millions – Frank Cottrell Boyce

A ridiculously stunning book, Millions is the one book I would have loved to have written. Brothers Anthony and Damien have a whole shedload of money fall into their hands after witnessing a train robbery. Trouble is, they only have days to spend it because Britain is about to join the Euro and the money they’ve found is all in pounds. This book is very very perfect and Damien is an amazing character.

Similar to : Nothing. Perfect. Go read it.

The Animals of Farthing Wood – Colin Dann

Dann was a keen naturalist and it shows in this tale of animals banding together to find themselves a new home after their current is threatened by the encroachment of man. Writing the animals as Fox, Vixen, Badger etc, Dann carefully avoids sentiment and over anthropomorphising and creates a thrilling animal saga.

Similar to : Tarka the Otter

The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

This was originally published in serial form and it shows. There’s a gorgeous sense of readability to it, the pacing is brilliant and it remains a classic of its time. There’s swords, swash-buckling, derring-do and some amazing intrigue going on. Last month I went to a Musketeer festival in the South-West of France where people sauntered around the centre of the village and slapped their thigh a lot and called for beer. It was amazing and this book is wholly to blame for that (and also for my obsession with ‘sturdy Gascon ponies’)

Similar to : The Man in the Iron Mask

The Silver Brumby – Elyne Mitchell 

The Silver Brumby is one of the richest books I know. Set in the wilds of the Australian outback, it is the story of Thowra – the silver brumby. The first of a massive (and gorgeous) series that sings with love for the landscape it is set in, it’s a treat for horse-lovers that remains beyond compare.

Similar to : Bambi

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

An intensely vivid and personal graphic novel, this is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, a girl growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. Full of a witty, and sharp sense of humour, and also a sardonic self-reflection on life, this book is superb.

Similar to : the film version – also very very brilliant.

Black Beauty – Anna Sewell

Nominally a book about a horses life, this proto-animal rights book remains superb and relevant to today. There’s also a rite of passage in it that every reader must go through – frankly, if you don’t weep buckets when XXXXXX XXXXXX then I’m going to come and have a word.

Similar to: Watership Down

Macbeth – William Shakespeare

Shakespeare gets a bad rap sometimes and it’s not fair. This play is brilliant. There’s death, witches, ghosts, trees and come-uppance(s) a plenty. I love this play and it is very much worth reading. Take the lines out of the book and play with the language. I still love the witches parts for example.

Similar to : The Duchess of Malfi (but there are MAJOR adult themes in that one so be warned).

Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfield

Streatfield wrote a ton of stuff about children on the stage and exploring alternative avenues of fulfilment (ice-skating, circus(ing) etc). This is one of her best-loved and it’s endured for a reason. The story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy remains engaging, warm and very very lovely.

Similar to : Sadler’s Wells

An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part two)

The Jolly Postman – Janet & Allan Ahlberg

This book is one of those that rewards persistence. Every double page spread has a *something* that can be pulled out of the envelope,  and be read. I love the layers that are at work here and how, very subtly and cleverly, the concept of story is played with and expressed to the utmost.

Similar to : The Jolly Christmas Postman

When The Wind Blows – Raymond Briggs

Possibly one of the finest and most heart-breaking graphic novels produced this century, Where The Wind Blows is full of rage and hopeless anger. Superbly, and subtly constructed, it is the story – and the painful conclusion – of a husband and wife dealing with the impact of nuclear war.

Similar to : Maus

Dear Grandma Bunny – Dick Bruna

The brilliance of the Miffy books is undoubted, but Dear Grandma Bunny is one of the finest. Dealing with the death of Grandma Bunny in quiet, clear imagery, it is superb and reaches much deeper than it appears to. Worth hunting out.

Similar to : Nothing.

Cloudland – John Burningham

A picture book made of magic, Cloudland is the story of the children up in the clouds and the games they play. Albert, out walking with his parents in the mountains, falls off the edge of a cliff and instead of falling to his doom is caught by the cloud children. Stylistically this book is incredible, told in a mixture of cut-outs overlaid on the most beautiful of images. It’s very beautiful.

Similar to : Helen Oxenbury (hee)

Stanley’s Stick – John Hegley / Neal Layton

A vivid, screaming to be read out loud, tribute to imagination and the sheer joy of play, Stanley’s Stick is a delight. Stanley goes through the book discovering everything his stick can be. A charming, beautifully constructed book.

Similar to : E Nesbit (I know there’s an age difference but hey, esoteric remember? ;) )

Rosie’s Walk – Pat Hutchins

Don’t let the front cover fool you, this book is superb and not at all dated . Witty and sparky with a constant hive of activity in the background, it’s one which pays off the reader in slapstick by the barrel load. Brilliant.

Similar to : Laurel and Hardy

A Ball for Daisy – Chris Raschka

Poetic, wordless, lush imagery tells the story of Daisy and her ball. Raschka’s use of line is bold and thick and vivid, and Daisy herself is a gorgeously vivid creation. One of the books that makes you think words aren’t always necessary.

Similar to : The Chicken Thief

The Five Senses – Herve Tullet

I have a lot of love for Tullet’s work primarily because of the sheer, irrepressible exuberance of it. Nominally an exploration of the five senses, this book provides a journey into the act of reading (can you tell I love an interactive, active engagement with a text?!). This book’s awesome, passionate and full of joy.

Similar to : Press Here

Pride – Brian K Vaughan

A deceptively simple alternative look at the invasion of Iraq. It’s told through the eyes of a pride of lions accidentally freed from Baghdad Zoo. This book is alternatively terrifying, heartbreaking, and laugh out loud funny. It’s a visual tour-de-force.

Similar to : Persepolis

Runaways (Volume One) – Brian K Vaughan

This book  revolutionised my perception of graphic novels and the first couple of volumes in the series are stunning. Based on the simple premise, what if your parents are really evil, Runaways is awesome. Want strong female heroines? Want them to mention things like puberty? Want a dinosaur? Done.

Similar to : Famous Five meets the X-Men