Hilda and the Stone Forest : Luke Pearson

Hilda and the Stone ForestHilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dynamism. Dynamics. They’re abstract concepts and yet, when I come to Hilda and the Stone Forest, they’re incredibly relevant. This latest episode in the rather lovely Hilda series is a book that thrives on movement and dynamic, swift lines and panels. There’s a sense of irresistible pace around it; this book is going places, and Hilda is so delightfully determined and wonderful that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Pearson’s book is good, wildly distinct stuff and it reminds me that I haven’t read enough Hilda.

But back to that idea of dynamics. It’s quite easy for a lot of readers to enter a phase of being intimidated and thus withdraw from books. Big books. Tightly worded books. Worthy books. Old people books. Children’s literature is a wonderful space to navigate but it’s also incredibly complicated to navigate. Hang around in a bookshop sometime or a library and watch the amount of children who choose without the help of a parent or guardian. A lot of that is clearly understandable and welcome from a host of perspectives, but what it does is change the nature of literacy into something that is shared. The child becomes part of a pact of reading with the adult and the text, and sometimes one of those elements will give and the walls will come crashing down. I can’t tell you anything more heartbreaking than a child telling me that they are a bad reader.

Books that use pace effectively address this. Books that use movement, and space, and time so very well are to be treasured. Hilda and The Stone Forest is a book that is full of direction. The edges, in particular, are perfect. Sometimes an image goes all the way to the page edge, providing a link between that page and the next, whilst another page will be constructed of a series of panels, all of which are reaching forward in the book. Structure. Pace. Movement. This is a story of adventure and being brave (and, sidebar, it involves one of the best mother I’ve seen for a while), and I loved it. Pearson’s work wants to be read, and it wants you to come along with it for the ride. This is generous, exuberant, lovely work – and the ending is perfect.

My thanks to Flying Eye Books for the review copy.

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Through The Mirror Door : Sarah Baker

Through the Mirror DoorThrough the Mirror Door by Sarah Baker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I need to tell you a little bit about the background of this review. I was originally offered a review copy of Through The Mirror Door, which I declined. The reason for that is because I share an agent with Sarah Baker and it all felt a little bit too close to home. One of the great things I value about my blog is that it is honest and objective. I think it’s very important to maintain that standard, and the thought of reviewing something that was so near to me felt a little weird (and indeed, forms one of the points on this list of why I don’t review things).

I debated for a long time over accepting the review copy but I declined. Reluctantly. But then I ordered it from the library, because I suspected that was a way around things for me. I could read it in private and figure out if I could write about it. If I should. And I could also give my library some issue statistics at the same time.

And so here I am, writing a review about a book that I didn’t think I could write, and I’m writing it because that book is really rather lovely. Through The Mirror Door fits squarely into the very golden tradition of adventure stories and speaks quite distinctly to Philippa Pearce and Tom’s Midnight Garden, but also that E Nesbit vibe of strong and distinct heroines who can Solve Problems and Face Up To Things and Be Rather Plucky About IT All.

This is such a lovely story. It’s set in an atmospheric, crumbly old French house. The orphaned Angela is on holiday there with her ‘maybe-new-family’ of distant relatives, and she discovers a secret in the house. And it’s a secret that needs saving…

Through the Mirror Door is quietly accomplished and some of the plot twists in it were immensely well handled. Subtlety is a gift that a lot of people lack, they signpost things, but Baker doesn’t. She has such a warm and genuine style, that much of this reads like a much more sympathetic Famous Five adventure. Creaking doors. Shadows in the night. Horrible relatives. I will always love books that do what they do with such aplomb. And here’s the thing; I suspect that Through The Mirror Door isn’t the limit of Baker’s writing. I suspect that there’s more to come.

Good books will always make me write about them.

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First Pages: Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Every now and then, I like to look at the first pages of some very good children’s books and analyse just how and why they achieve that goodness. Today’s post is on the wonderful Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens and you can browse some of the previous entries in the First Page series here .

I love Murder Most Unladylike. I am an avowed fan of what Robin Stevens does in her contemporary, classic and delicious school stories. Murder Most Unladylike and the sequels have been of such a standard that I’ve been both frankly envious and madly in love with. These are good, good books and if you do not know them then you should. They are books that tell girls to be what they are and should be and does so in such a wonderfully empowering (and occasionally murderous) manner that they are just lovely.

And so to the first page of Murder Most Unladylike (MMU). It’s a book that actually starts a long while before this page; there are cast lists, a map, and some other lovely little details. I particularly adore how this book uses paratexts (fig 1). What are paratexts I hear you ask? Check out this post on ‘Egg’ by Alex T Smith and you’ll see what I mean.

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Figure One: Paratexts! Paratexts! My Kingdom For Delicious Paratexts!

I’ve come back to MMU recently because I hope to use it in the third chapter of my thesis. I’m looking at representations of childhood and how it ties into space and place. As those of you who know this blog might not be surprised to read, I’m concentrating mainly on school stories. School stories are a fascinating beast because they remain somewhat critically neglected. The big titles, of course, have a presence but work on popular fiction like Malory Towers or St Clare’s or Trebizon remains fascinatingly rare. One of the drivers of that, I suspect, is the great introspection of the genre. It’s a genre which thrives on barriers; children are sent to school. They usually stay there. Even if they run away, they usually end up going back. The school itself is usually something stately or castle like; fortified against the world both through the nature of its building but also through location. To all intents and purposes these stories don’t fit within society, they fit next to it.

They are isolated constructions; a macrocosm.  And here’s the thing about this first page; it speaks so knowingly and so smartly within that frame, but also outside of it.

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Figure Two: Best. First. Paragraph. Ever.

Let’s take it step by step and begin with that first paragraph (fig 2). There’s a great potential for this sort of series to turn into some sort of substandard Daisy Pulls It Off affair. Jolly hockeysticks. Cliches and overwrought writing. As much as I adore Angela Brazil, she doesn’t read well today. But this does, precisely because it both recognises the frame of the schoolgirl story but also the great humour of it. That last line ‘I suspect that the solution to this new case may be more complex” is glorious and so deeply funny. But here’s the thing; it’s not overtly funny to Hazel. I might be wrong here, but I don’t suspect it is. I find this deeply matter-of-fact and rather practical and all the funnier because of it. Hazel’s a rather wonderful character here, showing such a delicious sense of practicality and inescapable logic that you can’t help but fall in love with her. This is the way things are. And it’s just a good job she has a new notepad to record the adventures. (Seriously, what a character..)

There’s a lot of work done in these two paragraphs. The first one does much of the context, but the second one does the heavy lifting that’s specific to this particular narrative. We have Daisy introduced, and Hazel named, and the reference to Sherlock Holmes and Watson made. Then there’s that delicious ‘Daisy says…’ sentence which immediately positions Daisy as the more dominant individual of the two. Isn’t it amazing how two words can do so much work? Daisy’s presence is established before she’s even appeared.

The final sentence of this book “After all I am much too short to be the heroine of this story, and who ever heard of a Chinese Sherlock Holmes?” is spectacular. It both couples with the ‘Daisy says…’ element, whilst also introducing a whole host of elements. The invocation of Hazel’s background is deliberately done; her otherness marked, and noted as something that’s apparently incompatible with this overarching image of Sherlock Holmes and Solving Mysteries. And yet, as we can see from this page and her calm unpacking of The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie, it’s clear that Hazel’s actually pretty awesome.

So just think about that for a moment. One page, and we have a thousand things established. Context. Genre. Humour. Character. Cultural Touchstones. Intent. This is such a well-crafted book and this first page is almost palpable with narrative drive. This sort of thing matters, and Murder Most Unladylike does it so well.

 

The Brownstone Mythical Collection: Arthur and the Golden Rope : Joe Todd-Stanton

The Brownstone Mythical Collection: Arthur and the Golden RopeThe Brownstone Mythical Collection: Arthur and the Golden Rope by Joe Todd Stanton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the golden foiling on the front cover, to that rich and thick paper used throughout, Arthur and the Golden Rope is an absolutely beautiful book. I was very thrilled to receive a review copy of it from Flying Eye Books. I have been looking for more books like this; mythic adventures, well told, Arthur And the Golden Rope gave me exactly what I was hoping for. It is a fabulous statement of a book.

The book begins with us being welcomed to the Brownstone family vault. The vault is full of treasures but the most treasured is “this humble collection of books”. These books retell the adventures of the Brownstone ancestors, from Eleanor Brownstone’s discovery of the Crystal Kingdom through to Eric Brownstone’s battle with the hundred-headed snake King of Tuckernuck Island. Arthur and The Golden Rope is the story of the first adventurous Brownstone: “Arthur, the unlikeliest of heroes.”

Arthur’s adventure begins in a small Icelandic town and comes to encompass many of the mythic heroes and figures from Norse mythology. Arthur himself is delightful; independent, brave, charming, and he steps up to save his town when all seems lost.

I tweeted some images from this book because it’s an intensely beautiful book. Todd-Stanton’s art is rich; it’s layered and scratchy and thick with detail. It’s big, too, there are some double page spreads here that sing with detail. The library spread in particular is delightful; Arthur is researching and shown in various poses around the library, and every inch of the pages sing of movement and of thought and effort. Arthur opens a book with teeth. He almost falls off a ladder. Swords impale books into the wall. A spell creeps out of a left open book. It is beautiful, and smart work.

Textually, the big thing to note about Arthur And The Golden Rope is the great orality of the tale. It’s broken up into a series of small paragraphs, some a just sentence long, and Todd-Stanton never loses sight of the conceit at the heart of this story. This is a story being told to us; and the pacing is perfect. And I adored that, really, because (and excuse me whilst I get all technical) but such orality speaks back to the great heritage of these stories. Stories of mythic and magic are made to be spoken and orated, and Arthur and The Golden Rope gets that. This is a story to be performed and shared, but it’s also one that is quite able to step back and let the artwork speak when it needs . This is such a clever, balanced, brilliant book.

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Happy birthday Enid Blyton!

Enid Blyton was born on this day in 1897. Happy birthday Enid!

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by Blyton the more I’ve worked on the second chapter of my thesis. I’m considering the changing relationship of children’s literature with landscape; the Arcadian idyll of the Victorian period shifting through to the movements of the post-war period where boundaries were able to be transgressed and challenged … and Enid forms a big part of this discussion.

The more I’ve worked on Malory Towers and St Clare’s, the more I’ve become convinced that Blyton’s texts work in a unique liminality; they talk back to the patriarchal dominance of the age but also, quite subversively, present alternative modes of female existence. Choice, really. And that’s quite the thing to find in an author who is, so often, read as a bastion of gendered problematics. I’m not denying the existence of these problematics but rather asking us to read beyond them in a way…

So happy birthday Enid and, in a slightly Pythonesque manner, here’s a list of facts and other things …

  • Enid Blyton is the fourth most translated author in the world. The three authors above her? Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare. (Unesco, 2015).
  • Enid Blyton had 762 books published. Just. Let. That. Sink. In.
  • I suspect popular children’s fiction would be in a very different state today were it not for Blyton. You know those Daisy Meadows books? And similar? Consider what they’d be without the nature of Blyton and the way she showed the voracious appetites of what readers could be….
  • She gave us the Malory Towers swimming pool. Still possibly the best swimming pool in the entirety of children’s fiction. And yes, this is niche, but I’m willing to argue at length about this.
  • The house she once lived in is fabulously surreal.
  • She wrote the weirdest, cagiest, and possibly best author autobiography I’ve ever read.
  • She gave us Anne; one of the most complex and misunderstood female characters ever.
  • She practically defined the idea of ferociously readable writing. Yes, this may have come at the expense of a myriad of other factors, but the woman could write. I don’t think I know of a more determined writer.
  • She wrote some of the most definitive school stories out there. The St Clare’s and Malory Towers books are woefully undercritiqued and yet, there they are, immensely and perpetually popular and also subtly promoting a whole host of diverse representations of girlhood.
  • Ginger beer. Never had some. Not sure I want to, because I think it might ruin the mystique…

 

So here’s to you Enid, and your crazy, readable ways. You’re not the most run of the mill person, nor are you infallible, and I’m fairly sure I will never write a sentence about you that doesn’t involve the word ‘complicated’, but I am very sure that you are unique. Happy birthday!

Works cited:-

UNESCO (2015) Index Translationum : Top 50 Most Translated Authors http://www.unesco.org/xtrans/bsstatexp.aspx?crit1L=5&nTyp=min&topN=50 [accessed 06/07/2015]

 

The Power of Dark : Robin Jarvis

The Power of DarkThe Power of Dark by Robin Jarvis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up near Whitby. It’s a gorgeous, wild place. It hinges on the great jaws of the West and East Cliff and when you stand there, on that bridge between the two sides of the town, you can feel the whole world rolling in off the sea to greet you. This is a strange, evocative town that you have to earn. Jennet and Ben, back in The Whitby Witches have to earn their presence within Whitby. They don’t get there easily nor painlessly, but they end up there when they’re needed. When they have to be. Whitby is a space between the worlds, a thin gauze between the human and the other, and such a town needs protectors. Aunt Alice was one.

Cherry Cerise is another. She’s the last of the Whitby Witches; a delicious bit of writing that I can adore and marry for it is perfect. This town has guardians, protectors, and it needs them right now because Whitby is facing its newest – and maybe darkest – hour. Young friends, Lil and Verne, embroiled in events they can’t begin to understand have to stand with Cherry and save their town from the brink of destruction.

I am a fan of Robin Jarvis. He writes big, British fantasy; stories that root themselves resolutely in space and place and explore the darkness of what may happen and what has already happened there. One distinguishing mark of his work are his great and deeply distinct illustrations. The Power Of Dark sings with little inked notes throughout; a sigil, the curve of a *spoiler* or the eyes of the Aufwaders who I had not realised how much I had loved and missed until I saw them look out at me from the pages.

The Power of Dark is the first in a series. A trilogy, I’m guessing. Jarvis fits well into trilogies and the rhythm of them; and this does have the mark of an overarching saga that makes me itch with potential. The Power of Dark is perhaps for a slightly younger audience than you may have expected, but even then, that’s a complex call to make because certain scenes are spine tingling and sharp and not to be read in the dark. I suspect this is one that might be quite fluid when it comes to age based reccomendations.

One other thing to note about The Power Of Dark is that I rather like the fact that it’s so exuberantly unnerving. Jarvis throws everything into this with a sort of delicious glee; there’s steampunk, goths, aufwaders, historic flashbacks, and witches. And it’s great. It rips along with an intense and madly engendering joy. This is a book that was, I suspect, begging to be written for a long time. And I’m really rather glad it was. The Power Of Dark is something that should be in the world, it really should. We are better for it.

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Edit: 07/08/2016 – Robin has confirmed via Twitter (Twitter’s ace, isn’t it?) that there are going to be four books in this series. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and shriek with bookish joy…

An Island of Our Own : Sally Nicholls

An Island of Our OwnAn Island of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life for Holly and her siblings is hard. Ever since the death of their mother, they’ve been trying to survive together. But surviving is hard and living is even harder; money problems, family troubles, and keeping a two bedroom flat together in London is pushing them all to the edge. One of their relatives, Great-Aunt Irene is in hospital suffering from a stroke. And, when Holly and Jonathan and Davy go and visit, Irene gives Holly a book of photographs which maybe, might, solve all of their difficulties. It’s time to figure out the clues in the book and find the treasure – before somebody else does.

I loved this. I will be frank and say that I adored this and I loved it and this is a very perfect and quiet and rather brilliant book. The great gift that Nicholls has here is that she’s got the voice of Holly perfectly; Holly is genuine, straightforward and rather beautiful. This is a book about family and people and such a book hinges on character. There’s plot, yes, a lot of it and it’s good but none of that matters a jot unless you believe in the people on their quest. And I did. I loved it. An Island of Our Own has the feel of something classic about it; there’s echoes of Swallows and Amazons and The Story of the Treasure Seekers and Philippa Pearce about it. It reads something like all of these mixed together with a hint of the Famous Five about it as well for good measure.

The other thing that lays at the heart of An Island Of Our Own is the idea of friendship. Family is family, but friends are family to. The kindness of strangers. The connections formed between people that pull people back from the brink. It’s such a quietly gorgeous and richly layered book this. I adored it.

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