Children’s literature and the great ‘oh’

This post marks the debut of a new series on this blog, namely a collection of longer and more in-depth pieces. Long-reads, essays, that sort of thing. They will be able to be read in sequence or in isolation, and I hope they’ll help to shed some light on children’s literature. And on tigers. 

Let me know what you think x 

 

I. Introduction

I’m in a taxi, on my way home from a conference, and we’re cutting through the streets of York. As shops blur past us, and tourists pause to photograph each other against increasingly antiquated backgrounds, he asks me, in that way that taxi drivers do, where I’ve been. A conference, I say, and then in that still somewhat disbelieving frame of mind, I add, Cambridge. Cambridge. I have spoken about my research at Cambridge and it is all still a little unreal to me.

Oh, he says, and what were you talking about? Children’s books, I say. Or rather, in my dizzy and deftless and exhausted manner, I fall back on the language of the weekend and refer to it as children’s literature. Pony books, I say, to be precise. Words. I struggle sometimes with them when all I want to do is talk about them. The knot of language in my throat, coupled with the weekend I have had, makes me fall silent. Makes me wait for his reply.

Oh, he says.

But this time his oh is different. It is a flat oh, a sort of dimly appalled oh, the oh that speaks of somebody who has entered a conversation that they do not wish to end.

It is the sort of oh I have heard before.

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Wing Jones : Katherine Webber

Wing JonesWing Jones by Katherine Webber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the first things to note about Wing Jones is the beautiful production values that surround it. There’s a lot to be said for noting how people publish a novel. A lot of them exist in the world. A lot. How do you make yours stand out? How do you make yours sing of the faith and the hours and the money and the love that you have poured into it? In the case of Wing Jones, it’s a dynamic cover and some beautiful ombre page edges that shift from pink through to purple and oh, it’s beautiful. It says so much when publishers do this sort of thing because the book itself, it becomes something a little bit more eye-catching, a little bit prouder, a little bit more determined to make its mark.

And Wing Jones does, immensely. It’s the story of Wing Jones who doesn’t easily fit in. She has one grandmother from China and another from Ghana, and knows the problems of figuring out who you are in the world first hand. Her brother, Marcus, though, he’s working it out a lot easier than her. But then something terrible happens and it’s down to Wing to figure out who she is all by herself, save for the help of a magical dragon and lioness who come to her in the night. It’s a fiercely contemporary novel which deals with some stark issues and yet, there’s that touch of magical realism to it. A poetic of space, somehow, that twists the world that Wing’s in and makes it something else. Something that she can control. Something that she can run in.

It’s Webber’s debut novel this and there were a few moments where I’d have liked it being crafted in a slightly different manner, but I say this in the light of the great achievement that this book is. I am picky, undoubtedly so, because I think Webber’s quite remarkable with her language and oh, how I want more of that. She writes with a cadence that I’ve not found for a while, a sort of musical rhythm to her paragraphs, twists of languages and sudden symphonic sentences. And that, is perhaps more than anything, the reason I recommend Wing Jones. Webber’s language, her ability to craft a world that is rarely written of, and her ability to make that sing, utterly, and to make it beat like the pounding of your first-fallen-in-love-heart is quite something. Wing Jones is good. Extremely. Utterly. But I suspect Webber’s next book might be even more so.

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Margot and Me : Juno Dawson

Margot & MeMargot & Me by Juno Dawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s hard to write through tears and yet, here I am, pushing through and trying to capture what makes Margot and Me so rather utterly wonderful. It is wonderful. I have written a thousand sentences trying to capture the nuances of this beautiful and heartfelt novel and I don’t think I’m anywhere near capturing it.

But I will try, and it starts with how Dawson understands character. She writes thick and fat and full and round people, believable people, understandable people, and this book is one that it’s hard to step away from. I love it. I love Dawson’s writing and how she crafts something so perfectly nuanced and, when it needs to be, kind.

Margot and Me is a split narrative between present day, where Fliss and her mother have moved to her grandmother’s farm in Wales, and the second world war diaries of her grandmother. Fliss’ mother is recuperating from chemotherapy and the farm stay is to help her recover. But Fliss’ grandmother, the redoubtable Margot, is not the easiest person to live with. It is only when Fliss discovers Margot’s WW2 diaries and starts reading them that she comes to figure out a few things about her…

Margot and Me inhabits a very distinct ground and it owns that ground so clearly and distinctly and so brightly and so perfectly. Think of the perfect A Little Love Song, think of Carrie’s War, think of The Other Way Round, and you’ll have an idea where this ferociously contemporary and deeply sensitive and nuanced book is. It hybridises that second world war story of growing up in extraordinary times with a consciousness that life, living, whatever time it is, is complex and troublesome and hard and a story that is needing to be told.

And I am still crying over the way it so, so perfectly does that.

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Dragon’s Green : Scarlett Thomas

Dragon's GreenDragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dragon’s Green is a really intriguing book and one that I sort of thought I wouldn’t like and then really rather did. It reaches in a thousand different directions, some more successfully than others, and when it hits, it’s utterly wonderful.

So, a plot precis: Euphemia Truelove, pupil of a school for the Gifted And Strange, is set to inherit a very unusual library from her very unusual grandfather. And alongside that inheritence come problems of a very deep and dark nature that can only be solved with some friends, some magical boons, and a lot of bravery. It’s the first novel of a series and, perhaps even more praise-worthily, manages to deliver a self-contained story that doesn’t have one of those hideous ‘tune in next time’ cliff-hangers.

There’s a place for this sort of novel within children’s and young adult literature and I’m pleased that Thomas is filling it. I get asked quite a lot about books to read after Harry Potter and despite a lot of effort (again, some better than others), there’s never really been anything to fill that gap. Dragon’s Green inhabits that ‘next’ space really nicely and in doing so, delivers something that speaks to both Harry Potter but also to Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson. And they’re not authors to invoke lightly, but Dragon’s Green, when it connects and when it hits its moments full on, invokes those connections and does it with spades.

I like this. I like the complexity of it, and I like how straightfoward Thomas is in delivering it and I love how much she trusts her characters to do the things that they need to do. It’s not a perfect novel. There’s a saggy middle which loses its way somewhat, and there’s a few moments which needed a bit of rereading in order to fully understand. But, even having said that (and it is something that definitely needs to be acknowledged) I didn’t stop reading this wonderfully distinct and convincing novel. I didn’t want to stop reading it at all. There’s the kernels of something very good here.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Talking politics

In an increasingly visible year, full of increasingly visible and often questionable political rhetoric, I’ve been looking for resources that help us explain this to children. It’s easy to underestimate what a child knows of society, and it’s easy to not discuss this sort of thing. Childhood is childhood and I get the precious protection of that. But equally, we live in a context of connectivity. We are global, we are social, and people talk.

Here’s a few resources that may help you talk with your children or those you work with. I’ve added the date in brackets after each entry for a static entry. I’d like to list more so please do feel free to comment with anything useful that I may have missed.

Inside, Outside, Upside, Down : Yasmeen Ismail

Inside, Outside, Upside DownInside, Outside, Upside Down by Yasmeen Ismail

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to like about this charming sequence of activity books from Ismail and I think a lot of centres on the value of an unfinished line. Take a look, next time you’re somewhere bookish, at a similar book, maybe one of those colouring in things that are everywhere. Take a look at how they construct an image. I’ll guess that it’s definite, solid, unbroken line. The sort of line you colour firmly within the boundaries of. Those lines are great and gorgeous and serve an incredibly relevant function in that context but Ismail’s lines are different. They have space in them; air, and don’t quite touch at the end, or run over a line, or leave a little gap before bouncing out into the whiteness of the page beyond. And that’s important in a book like this, aimed at those who have a little bit of dexterity in drawing, a little bit of ability to colour (4yrs+), because it allows mistakes. It allows ownership. It allows and it facilitates drawing to fall out of the gaps and spill across and over things. It’s a simple thing, but it’s smartly done and it recurs in the other book in the series I had a look at: Push, Pull, Empty, Full. Ismail gets line. She gets the freedom of it and what it can tell a reader, even when they don’t know that it’s talking to it.

Content wise, Inside, Outside, Upside Down is a joy. Three characters, Duck, Bear and Rabbit, explore a range of situations involving paired words and opposites over a series of double page spreads. In one example, Bear holds his bag right side up and the reader is asked to colour Bear’s bag. The pairing image, on the right hand side of the page, sees Bear’s bag upside down and the reader asked to ‘draw what’s falling out’. There are some quite complex thought processes here which is why it reaches a little bit towards the older age of the demographic. But oh, Ismail’s use of line and the slightly offbeat questions and challenges towards the reader are so very definitely worth it. What a smart and kind book this is.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this title.

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Judith Kerr’s Creatures : Judith Kerr

Judith Kerr's CreaturesJudith Kerr’s Creatures by Judith Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to define how beautiful a book this when you’re typing a review in that thick haze you get after crying, but I shall. I shall try.

I love Judith Kerr. There are a handful of authors that I cling to in children’s literature, like somebody who is drowning and in search of a lifebelt and Judith Kerr is one of them. She is my safe space, my shore. I have loved her from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit through to Mog the Forgetful Cat and back again. And, whilst I am on this paragraph in which I confess my love, if you have not seen this documentary on Kerr and her work, give yourself an hour out and do so. It is a joy, she is a joy, and I love her.

Judith Kerr’s Creatures functions as an autobiography, lavishly illustrated and holding many remarkable items relating to a remarkable life. It is graceful and self-effacing and a must for anybody interested in writing, illustration and the life behind books that become classics. Seeing some of Kerr’s earlier work juxtaposed against the proofs of her later work is undefinably wonderful because it allows the reader to trace the development of a brilliant artist. Line, for example, is something I talk about a lot in picture books because you can do so much with such a simple thing. The thickness of it. The thinness. The direction. The boldness. The shape. Try it now, doodle a sad line, a happy line. I’ll bet one curves down and one curves up and that, beyond it, you’ll see the shape of a face tight and sad, or round and full of joy. That’s line, that’s the evocation of line and that’s what we do with it as people. We fill it. We give it context. Kerr’s line is a wonderful thing in that it is human and full of movement. There are sketches in this that sing of movement and of the ability to watch and study people. To find the shape of them, to find the bits that matter in the sketch and to capture that. What skill. What utter, hard-won, determined skill.

I love this book. I am rhapsodic over this book. I love how respectful it is, and how it does not belittle any of Kerr’s remarkable achivements or skill, and how it treats them with the reverence they deserve. This is art and I shall fight you if you say otherwise, for this book is beautiful and we are privileged to have Kerr’s work in our lives.

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