Janie Steps In : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Janie Steps In (La Rochelle, #7)Janie Steps In by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know where to begin with this delightful little box of tricks, so perhaps we shall be like Fraulein Maria and start at the beginning for that is a very good place to start. And beginnings, really, are a strange thing to find in this book because it is the end of the La Rochelle series and many of the characters face the fate of being interwoven into that series. This is not a problem, if we are precise about it, for Janie Steps In holds approximately 303048 individuals who are destined to be head girls and prefects within its pages. But, it also holds a chapter called The Apple Riot, shines a spotlight on the epitome of dysfunction that is the Chester family, and, what’s more, throws in a little lesson on ‘don’t marry the first hottie you meet’. To be frank, this is Brent-Dyer at her chaotic best.

Our interest in this episode is Nan Blakeney who hasn’t got over the death of her mother quick enough. She is not helped by her cousin having quite the family likeness (really not Nan’s problem for not getting over things then, is it?) and thus is sent off to Janie Lucy who is the spit of Joey from the Chalet School books and clearly one of Brent-Dyer’s great literary loves. Everything gets a bit hysterical, the servants do all the work, The Apple Riot is an outstanding chapter borne from something I can only attribute to a fever dream, and this is just good, brilliant stuff. Everyone is jolly, and everyone loves each other in a hearty sort of fashion (except Rosamund who is CLANNISH and Cannot Cope With Interlopers) and did I mention the apple thing?

I honestly think this might be one of my favourite Brent-Dyer books. She could hit some lows, and I’ll never be backward in pointing those out, but she could also hit some heights. This is amongst the best of her work; it’s warm as sunlight, easy and friendly (even when dealing with the more dramatic bits) and lovable. These characters are occasional tools, but madly vibrant. You finally get to figure out why everybody was super weird about Barbara Chester when she joined the Chalet School. And, if that wasn’t enough, there’s even one of those spectacular EBD ‘there’s no clues but X has been pregnant and whoops here’s a baby’ moments.

I loved this. I really, really did.

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Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley : Sue Purkiss

Jack Fortune: And the Search for the Hidden ValleyJack Fortune: And the Search for the Hidden Valley by Sue Purkiss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My eye was caught by the premise of this one. Jack is an orphaned boy and, after one prank too far, his Aunt washes her hands of him. Jack is sent to be with his Uncle, an exploring botanist, and the two of them are off to the Himalayas to find the rare blue rhododendron. But, as such things always are in books, that’s a lot easier said than done.

Jack Fortune and The Search For The Hidden Valley is a very enjoyable thing. Occasionally some of Purkiss’ prose feels a little conscious, and I’d welcome some clarity to the structure of the novel at points, the weight of the adventure carries her through. This is a really unusual setup for a book – not the adventure elements, but the botany subtext – and I think that’s a very welcome thing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that merges botany with a Boy’s Own adventure, and the little historical note for context at the back of the book is nicely done.

Set in eighteenth century England, and touching on issues of colonisation and British rule, there’s also an option for a lot of related discussion. Jack’s interactions with the locals are nicely done, if a little too briefly, and I’d welcome this sort of discussion being pushed forward in the sequels – I suspect there may be a sequel. It feels as though there should be. I’d like there to be one. There’s something so delicious about the premise, and Purkiss’ clear love of the genre, that one book really isn’t enough.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The circularity of debate

I have become increasingly conscious of the circularity of many debates within children’s literature, and the way that, so often, these feel as though they’re pushing against an echo chamber. Does it matter to talk about such things when it feels as though nobody’s listening? Of course it does, for words are weapons and vital moments of truth. Disrupt the narrative within the space that you exist, yes, always do such a thing.

But I think, as well, that when a debate hits the wall with such thudding regularity, and nothing seems to change, then questions need to be asked. The debate needs to be reframed. The question itself needs changing.

I need to problematise statements. Statistics, as we know, can say anything we want them to say. One in five people do this, but four in five do not. Read them from the left to the right, and then from the front to the back, and you’ll find a different story.

This is why, when I read a headline about what children’s literature is, and is not, I ache to see the data. I want to know what books you read, and if you think young adult is all about sparkling vampires. I want your credentials

(I also ache to examine our need to understand the absences and shortcomings of children’s literature in a way that, I think, we do not do with ‘adult’ literature. Related to that, I want to examine the cultural ownership of children’s literature. I read very of certain genres. I do not, generally, find myself writing about the deficiencies of such genres. Yet with children’s literature, we own it, and I suspect this is simply because we have all experienced a form of childhood. Were there a form of age after adulthood, I suspect we would look back on ‘adult’ literature and similarly question what it was and what it was not).

In response to all of this, I have made several decisions regarding my approach to reading and writing about children’s literature. I’ve been putting these into practice over the last few months. Here they are:

I don’t, and will not, write about tokenistic attempts at representation, but rather recognise those books that present the world as a rounded and diverse space. I do not seek tokenism, or knee-jerk attempts at diversity, but rather a simple questioning of the decisions and the defaults that are made and perpetuated throughout a book’s production.

I shall question the narrative  around certain issues where I can, and in the space that I can. I have, for example, become increasingly frustrated at how certain issues are represented and have begun to actively seek alternative perspectives. Whether that’s reading outside of my genres or looking for more translated fiction (for which I’d welcome reccommendations), I am trying to challenge the defaults that I cling to.

I am a researcher, a blogger, a writer and a librarian. I wear a lot of different hats depending on what day it is, and I think it’s vital to question the assumptions that I make. And perhaps that’s the way to disrupt the narrative, right there; to understand your place in the system and to question that. To problematise it, to ask – what if? I am interested, for example, that with one of the more recent ‘children’s books do this’ newspaper pieces, the only negative responses I saw were from male authors. I’m not calling out names but rather asking for a shift in perspective.

Perhaps, as Ice Cube would have it, it’s time to check yo self before checking the work of others.

It’s only through self-questioning that you can start to figure out the position that you play in the system and once you’ve figured that out, you can change it. Maybe just a little bit, but it’ll be enough. It’ll be a point that, when the debate rumbles round one more time, makes the track skip just a little bit and have the world pay attention to what you’re doing.

No more yelling into the echo chamber.

The Stone Bird : Jenny McCartney, illus. Patrick Benson

The Stone BirdThe Stone Bird by Jenny McCartney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a long time to understand The Stone Bird. When I first received it for review, I read it and didn’t quite connect with it. There was something not there for me, and so The Stone Bird slid to the pile of books that I don’t review, and it stayed there for a while. It was only recently when I revisited this pile, for I dislike not being able to write about books, and reread The Stone Bird that I realised I’d missed something. Whether that was me, or it, I’m still not sure, but I’m here and writing this review because this is an intriguing and very quietly powerful book. I suspect, perhaps, that quietness may lead it to be overlooked at first. It’s not a noisy story, and Patrick Benson’s illustrations, though wonderful, are a gently poised thing.

But quiet books matter, as much as the noisy ones, and the more I studied the pages of The Stone Bird, I began to understand the place in the world for this book. It’s a rainy day book; the sort that might get pushed under a cushion at first, but then suddenly catches your eye and is read and sings with that reading. It’s a long journey book, a thick summer evening book, a nestle into your life and never let go book. It is both sad and wonderful, elegiac and hopeful, poetic and soft, and I took a long time to realise that.

The story itself is one of apparent simplicity: Eliza has a pebble from the beach, and she knows the truth of it. It is no pebble, but an egg, and one night it hatches… There are some loose edges to McCartney’s language which I welcome; this shouldn’t be a story about precision and definite resolutions. Patrick Benson, illustrator of the blessed Owl Babies approaches this story with a quiet sensitivity. His work never rears off the page but rather lulls the reader in. It’s soft, rich, shimmering artwork that plays with edge and frame, and somehow manages to catch the thick heat of a summer’s day. It is a powerful, beautiful work and I am so glad that The Stone Bird gave me a second chance.

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A Spoonful of Murder : Robin Stevens

A Spoonful of Murder (Murder Most Unladylike Mystery, #6)A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There was a point in reading this when the back of my neck started to tingle. It’s not often that happens, but when it does, it’s the sort of thing you need to pay attention to. And I think you’ve experienced it too; that little sensation that you are reading something that is kind of superlatively wonderful, and your whole body has realised it. A literary spider sense if you will. The voice that forms afterwards and whispers: this is good.

I had that with A Spoonful Of Murder. I had it in spades. Most specifically I had it with pages 98-103, if you’d like me to be very specific, but this book is just a delight from start to end. I am a fan of Stevens’ work. I adored Murder Most Unladylike ( my review is here), and its sequels have been nothing but a vibrant joy. I even wrote about Murder Most Unladylike in my thesis and will bore you to death for hours on its nuanced representation of transgressive girlhood; and I love A Spoonful Of Murder with all my heart.

I really, really do. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to push good books at people. Not, I hasten to add, literally. I do not stand on street corners pushing books. I talk to people in my libraries and I share with them the books that are just classy and good and brilliant things. Stevens is at the top of her game here, because she takes risks and makes them work in a quite wonderful fashion. This isn’t the same old same old framework, resting on its laurels. Hazel and Daisy are in Hong Kong and there’s a murder and a kidnap to solve.

The relocation means that, for once, it’s Daisy who’s out of her depth and trying to figure out the ways of the world. It’s deliciously done, without ever disempowering her, and can I tell you how difficult an act that is? To write and to never, ever, not even once, devalue nor disempower character? It’s a rare, rare thing and one that is kind of beautiful and wonderful to read. It also speaks a lot about Stevens’ trust in this series and her work. She doesn’t mess this up, not once. Hazel is wonderful throughout, providing an introduction to her home city of Hong Kong and the intricacies of dim sum even as she’s wrestling with the thought that she is, herself, a suspect.

Good books make me happy. Good series make me even happier. Stevens manages to make each of these accessible to new readers, but also to old, and every single paragraph is just a joyful and gorgeous thing. It’s books like this that make me run out of superlatives.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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The Belles : Dhonielle Clayton

The Belles (The Belles #1)The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually step towards fantasy, but The Belles caught my eye. Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, tasked with ‘controlling’ Beauty in the gray and dammed world of Orléans. It is only through appointments with a Belle, that people can be transformed and made beautiful. Yet, upon arriving at the royal court, Camellia and her sisters come to realise that everything is not as they dreamt it would be. Beauty, and the search for it, can be deadly. And a girl who can control that may be asked to make some impossible choices.

That’s a good hook right there; a premise that sings towards some vital discussions, and places The Belles at a very vital intersection in Young Adult literature. This is the book that, for example, (Modelland by Tyra Banks) was trying so very hard to be. Beauty, and the commodification of that, the corruption of that, is something that needs to be bought out of the shadows and subject to critique. As The Belles shows, and as Barbara Kruger might say, your body is a battleground.

So The Belles hits notes that needs to be hit, and it hits them well. It took me a while to get into this, though I suspect that’s partially my unfamiliarity with the genre but it is worth mentioning. In contrast, however, the final third or so was a powerful reading experience with some severe, scarring scenes. As Clayton remarks in the afterword, this is a story that’s been gestating with her for quite some time and you can sense that. There’s a lot of rich detail work and it’s convincing. There’s no loose space in this world; it all makes sense and combines to deliver something that, ultimately, is a powerful and kind of brilliant read. The second half of this book is a genuinely great read. I suspect the first half is too, but it just took me a long time to get into it.

A final thing is worth mentioning. You know how certain books become very conscious of their first part in a series and end with a madly infuriating cliffhanger? Well, the Belles does end with a cliffhanger but it manages to get away with it because I actually cared. Funny how good writing does that to you.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Alpha : Bessora, Barroux, (Sarah Ardizzone (trans.))

Alpha. Abidjan to Gare du NordAlpha. Abidjan to Gare du Nord by Bessora

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to know how to classify this raw and brilliant book, so perhaps I shall classify it as a story about people and leave it at that. I was lucky enough to interview Bessora, and her translator Sarah Ardizzone here and I’d urge you to check out their thoughts about Alpha. There is a lot of depth here and care, and it shines through to the final product; a graphic novel of unsparing, simple truth.

Alpha is trying to get from the Ivory Coast to the Gare Du Nord in Paris. His wife and child have made the journey before him, though he does not know whether they were successful. He does not know if they are even alive. Life isn’t easy like that. This book doesn’t give you the simple Hollywood narrative, it gives you something rawer than that. It gives you a burnt, bitter truth and makes the faceless known.

I heard Bessora speak about this book (a quote I include here in this article about children’s books featuring refugees) and her comment that “We are all somebodies, not nobodies” has stuck with me for months now. She is a precise and beautiful writer, and when her language works with Barroux’s simple and blunt artwork, Alpha comes to possess a fierce and unflinching beauty of its own. This is a powerful book. It might be too true for some.

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