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.

Murder Most Unladylike : Robin Stevens

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells and Wong, #1)Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You may know by now that I have a thing for school stories. School stories are one of the great joys of children’s literature in that they do what they do so well. They tell a story in a frame which is familiar to the majority of children, and they do it with a sort of glorious constancy irrespective of date of publication. There is a part of me that wants to see Murder Most Unladylike read with books like The Princess of the Chalet School or Beswitched because it fits so comfortably and solidly into the genre. Because it is, quite possibly, the start of a very new and very lovely and very contemporary spin on the school story, despite the setting of 1930s England and tea houses and pashes.

Murder Most Unladylike is a (Daisy) Wells and (Hazel) Wong story. It’s a sort of hybrid of Angela Brazil meets Agatha Christie all mixed up with some Sherlockian tips and winks that made me snuggle down and read with a contented smile. It is a jacket potato on a winters day book; warm, satisfying, filling.

And can I tell you what I loved most about it? What made me actually adore and fall in love with it? It is Stevens’ kind and funny and lovely writing which features references to pashes and to Angela Brazil, but does it with a sort of love and respect and belief in the genre and what it can do when it’s done well (which it is here, very much so).

This is such a glorious book and it is one which has reinterpreted the school story for the contemporary reader and opened it up with a swift moving and accessible plot line. In Star Trek terms, it is the next generation as compared to the original series. It is very, very gorgeous. Daisy is glorious. Hazel is awesome. I want more, please. It’s as simple as that.

Murder Most Unladylike is published on June 5th by Random House, I would suggest we all save the date, yeah? I think that Wells and Wong are very definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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#kidbkgrp School Stories in Children’s Literature

Last night #kidbkgrp discussed school stories in children’s literature. Now, I admit that this one might have been a little self-indulgent as a topic (Team Chalet, yo), I was fascinated to see the range of reccomendations that came up. I think there’s something really interesting in how so many people plumped for say Chalet School in Exile and Prisoner of Azkaban as their desert island book – both books were spectacular highs in their respective series, and in the case of Exile, quite remarkable that it even got published.

I love school stories. I love what they are and what they can do. And I loved hearing all the chat last night. Thanks for coming along.

Here’s the storify of last night and here’s a link to the previous chats.

And that’s it for 2013! This is the part where I usually tell you about the next one that’s coming up, but I don’t know yet …. so I need your help!  Let me know what you want to chat about and how you want to chat about it (like, say, gender in children’s books or an open reccomendation surgery….). And finally, thank you for chatting! If you haven’t felt able to join in, but want to, let me know what would help you to join in? I would love to have you along for next time..! :)

First Term at L’Etoile : Holly & Kelly Willoughby

First Term at L' EtoileFirst Term at L’ Etoile by Holly & Kelly Willoughby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It will come as no surprise to you that I enjoy a school story. It’s a genre that is ripe and perfect for the reader to embrace, being as it is a reflection of a world experienced by pretty much all of us. And it’s one of those genres that keeps giving; it can be translated into pretty much any context you require, can be span into any time period and also has a fairly handy excuse for a massive cast (because, you know, they’re all there). I talk a bit more about the joy and the potential of the school genre here.

Can you tell I don’t know where to begin with this book? Can you tell that I am dodging an actual review of it somewhat? I imagine you can, because it’s screamingly blatant to me, and so we must actually begin.

Firstly: it is promising. Honestly. It’s a bit school story by numbers, but that construct is a construct for a reason and that reason is because it works. We have protagonist twins, a sidekick called Sally, a scholarship girl and a Gwendoline. And all that’s good. It’s handled in a light, fun way with a lot of love for the genre. Which is nice.

Secondly: it is a little too twee at times. I think something like the excellent Alice-Miranda at School books balance the needs of this age-group against actually giving them a good story. There’s a few too many coy asides from the author to the reader, and whilst that is good, I hope it’s pulled back in the succeeding novels. Girls of this age are smart, clever, individual readers and whilst I know a lot of them that would love this, they’d love it in a very transitory way.

Thirdly: The School is called L’Etoile. The pupils call themselves the L’Etoilettes. Please say that final bit aloud (possibly run it past a French speaker) and I think you might understand one of my key issues with the book.

Fourthly: Despite all of this, it’s actually not that bad. I mean it. There’s some major issues (see 2 and 3) but these are issues that could be resolved in the following books. I wonder whether a lot of this is self-consciousness and nerves in a way, and I hope it’s something that is addressed because this book has promise. Honestly. During the better moments, it’s delivered with a breezy lightness that is undoubtedly appealing. It just needs work.

Fifthly: So. Yeah. About that L’Etoilette thing.

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The Blue Lady : Eleanor Hawken

Blue Lady front coverThe Blue Lady
by Eleanor Hawken

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is the best school story I’ve read this year.

I tweeted about this book and that feeling still stands. There’s something about The Blue Lady, that dark meshing of The Craft and the close, almost Stepfordian potential that the genre always has. Because that’s the thing about boarding schools, they hold secrets. Every school does but there’s something about the forced insularity of a boarding school that heightens that tension. You are forced to be in a community, sometimes against your will, and you’re adopting a world that is not your own. It is the Chalet School meets 1984: you are assimilated into this society or you are not.

Hawken plays with that, very gorgeously, throughout this book. St Mark’s College is layered in secrets, thick and ghostly secret stories and spaces, shadowy and terrifying. Frankie arrives to this world, and she gets lost in it, drawn in by the entrancing and exciting Suzy.

I loved this book. There’s genuine edge here, and Hawken makes you shift from protagonist to protagonist, never quite sure who to root for or who to feel heartache for. It’s a powerful, shivery book that I’d massively massively recommend for school story fans, scary story fans and anybody who thinks they’re brave enough to learn about the truth of the Blue Lady.

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