Losing my marbles (or the day I visited the Miffy Museum in Utrecht)

For those of you who don’t know of her, Miffy is a joy. She is a small white rabbit created by Dick Bruna and I love her greatly. Dear Grandma Bunny, for example, is one of the best picture books that have ever been made and The Little Bird isn’t far off. Miffy is one of the points that I include on my 54 places to begin when thinking about children’s and young adult literature, and I hope that by now you’re starting to realise how important Dick Bruna was. His art was precise, beautiful and incredibly eloquent. We are a poorer world without him, but we are so, so lucky to have had him.

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Born in Utrecht, and beloved by the city, Bruna and his work are now memorialised in every inch of the town. From a pair of familiar ears peeking out from a shop window, through to traffic lights that offer red bunnies for stop and green for go, Utrecht is rightfully proud of its artistic son.

I took a day out from a week in Amsterdam to go over and visit; and oh, it was glorious. This blog is a safe space to confess such things and so I confess this to you: I lost my marbles and I loved it. There is something madly joyful about being unabashed in your loves, and when I sat in the reconstruction of Bruna’s studio in the top floor of the Centraal Museum, I cried.

bruna miffyThere is something very religious about this sort of thing for me; this travel to pay tribute to somebody, and it’s not a sensation that I can easily verbalise, but I can recognise. It comes when I love something and I do, frankly, love what Dick Bruna did for the world. He drew sensitively and smartly and warmly and to be a part of that story, even at this late and painful moment when you know it can’t continue, is a gift.

If you’d like to visit Utrecht on a similar pilgrimage, here’s some useful information for you. It is very easily accessible from Amsterdam station (literally half an hour train ride and then about twenty minutes walk from the sation). There are two points you’ll want to go to, the Miffy Museum and the Centraal Museum where Dick Bruna’s studio is in situ until 2025. You can buy a combined ticket for the two. The Miffy Museum itself is, I’ll grant, somewhat scant on the museum aspects but it’s oddly joyous to see a horde of little children racing around and enjoying themselves in that intense, whole-body, way that little children do. It’s a beautiful tribute and one that, in its way, left me as moved as visiting the recreation of Bruna’s studio did.

Here’s to you Dick Bruna, and thank you for your work. You made my heart break, you made it whole, and you made that happen with such unconscious finesse. You were – you are – you always will be – a gift. Thank you.

Piglettes : Clémentine Beauvais

PiglettesPiglettes by Clémentine Beauvais

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m always a little wary when I get offered a book to review that’s been written by somebody I know in real life. One of the things that I’m very deliberate on is that when I review, it comes from a place of honesty. And sometimes, I get concerned that that place might be affected by the people I know and because I am British and genetically trained for introversion, I get a bit conscious of that and so, every now and then, dither. So, I shall dither no more and simply tell you this: I’m lucky enough to know Clémentine in real life and she is as generous a scholar as she is as wonderful a writer. Piglettes is a joy and it is ferocious and particular and vivid and wonderful. It is a wonderful, wonderful book and it should be very much on your radar, my bookish friends.

Mireille, Astrid and Hakima have won a competition that nobody really wants to win. They are officially the three ugliest girls in their school and, because this is a competition that happens entirely online, there’s nothing that the school can do about it. It is something that the girls have to deal with on their own – or, together. The three of them band together in their adversity and decide that they’re going to cycle to Paris and gatecrash a garden party ran by the French president – a party that each girl has their own particular reasons for being there. It’s a trip powered by sausages, cheese, and cycles and it is glorious. I loved this. I loved it so much. There are moments in it that had me in raptures and moments that had me in tears; Beauvais writes with such nuance that this book gives you everything. Cheese. Lessons on body image. Friendship. Love. Sausages. It is a delight.

One of the big things about this bok is also how it treats some deep psychological issues. It’s easy to see it all about the sparking wit and humour of the narrator, Mireille, but there’s such a depth to it. Her wit and her humour comes because that’s how she’s learnt to survive and, in a few painfully beautiful asides, this becomes revealed as she wills her fellow ‘piglettes’ to not cry and show how upset they are. It’s painful, it’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful. And my god, the food in this book is something else. There is a special place in my heart for young adult books that dance with joy over sausage recipes. What an utter treat this book is. I want to wrap my arms around it and never let it go.

My (immense) thanks to Pushkin for a review copy. It’s due out in July. I suggest you make a note in your diary.

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Talking Empathy with Sita Brahmachari

I am immensely proud to be able to share a guest post with you today. I won’t ever deny that I’m picky about this sort of thing but that’s because I know you and I take this seriously. Children’s books are important, statuesque things and even more so in the frail and friable world we live in today. It’s with great pleasure then that I bring you this guest post, on Empathy Day, from Sita Brahmachari.

The topic of empathy is a subject close to the heart of Brahmachari’s new novel, Tender Earth, and it’s something which has characterised much of her other work. I have a world of time for the eloquent, graceful and kind Kite Spirit, Artichoke Hearts and Jasmine Skies and look forward to reading and reviewing Tender Earth in due course.

A final note: I was lucky enough to hear Sita speak at a conference a few years ago. I still remember her generous and inspirational words. My thanks to her for this.

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Tender Earth by Sita Brahmachari

‘A coming of age story for young protesters everywhere.’

Tender Earth is endorsed by Amnesty International UK because it illuminates the importance of equality, friendship and solidarity, and upholds our right to protest against injustice.’

Tender Earth is one of Julia Eccleshare’s picks of the month

‘A sharply observed and warm-hearted story about change and transition in adolescence, Tender Earth also carries a powerful message to all young readers about tolerance, integration and the need to stand up for what you believe in.’ Julia Eccleshare/ Good Reads

June 13th sees the first national empathy day and it feels to me like we need to see and feel greater levels of empathy on that day and every day. As a mother I worry about the impact of the often heartless, reactive words and actions that young people hear and experience every day. I have a thought a great deal about this when writing Tender Earth. How are young people navigating their way through the trials and conflicts of this time? How can we help them?

Many characters in Tender Earth feel that the things they hear and see on the news, as well as exchanges on social media, lack a common humanity but there are also moments when my characters step inside the shoes of others and get an insight into each other’s way of life. Sometimes these insights begin with a small conversation at a bus stop or in a school corridor but they can be like a door opening just a little crack to let you in …. But because we are inquisitive, questioning beings we want to open that door wider so that we can see and experience what’s behind it and try to understand another’s experience no matter how hard that might be.

‘Laila I really want to invite you to where I live, but it’s nothing like your house! I don’t ask people back usually,’ Pari says as if that’s a good reason not to invite me.

‘I don’t care what it’s like’

‘Actually…ever.’

‘What… you’ve never had anyone back from school, not even in primary?’

Pari shakes her head.

In Tender Earth each character who feels true empathy for another finds themselves having to ask some searching questions of themselves about what they can and should do to help each other.

World events impact on Laila, Kez, Pari and their community just as they impact on you and I and they are stunned and saddened by some of the hateful actions of people in the their own city, but the thing about empathy is it demands an action no matter how small or seemingly insignificant this action might seem to the world. Even a small action, like laying a flower on a memorial for the children of Manchester, lighting a candle or a minute silence can be a powerful reminder of our human ability to feel deep empathy for each other.

The fact that through stories, through fiction and non-fiction we can step into another person’s life even when they may be so different to ourselves is something that gives me hope in Tender Earth that young people might change the world for the better.

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In the words of the late Jo Cox MP

“We are far more united than the things that divide us”

The artichoke charm that appears in all three of my Levenson stories Artichoke Hearts, Jasmine Skies and Tender Earth is for me an empathy symbol and a metaphor for the process of writing. The outside leaves symbolises the guarded, protected layers we all often show to the world, it’s only in unpeeling the layers by getting to know someone’s story that we get to the softer more expressive heart of a person and in discovering that heart we ourselves are moved and changed to act differently.

If you are looking for articles and information about working with young people to extend empathy or sharing where young people can go to explore this further. Here are some links that I used in my research…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/23/psychopathic-murderers-manchester-attack-terrorists

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jo-cox-maiden-speech_uk_5762de5be4b03f24e3db840f

http://www.empathylab.uk/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/virtue-in-the-media-world/201507/news-stories-the-power-empathy

https://www.amnestyusa.org/about-us/who-we-are/local-groups/

https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/jan/12/books-breed-tolerance-children-read-errorist-attacks-paris

www.sitabrahmachari.com

My Name is Not Refugee : Kate Milner

My name is not RefugeeMy name is not Refugee by Kate Milner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this increasingly complex and difficult world we live in, I’ve been looking for books that help to explain and support younger readers. They have often proven of immense value to myself and the dual appeal of texts like this to both adult and child cannot be ignored. Step towards children’s books if you’re struggling to find answers; there’s something to be said for the pure poetics and the stylistic truths that can exist in this space.

I was delighted to come across My Name Is Not Refugee, a picture book which tells the story of an unnamed mother and son who need to leave their home. As we go along their journey, the text occasionally turns towards the reader and asks a direct question of them: “Can you speak more than one language?” or “What would you take?” It’s a simple technique and yet an incredibly potent one. Books like this thrive not only on the story that they provide but also on the discussion they provoke. I was very pleased to discover an excellent teacher’s resource kit for My Name Is Not Refugee and would direct you there as a matter of haste.

Milner’s great strength comes in her restraint; the text is poised and quiet, simply rendering the events with a sort of matter of fact air. Being a refugee is scary but also “quite exciting too”, yet she doesn’t hold back from showing the moments beyond those words. Some of the most powerful spreads in the book show great scenes beyond the text; swathes of tents in the distant, or a host of people sleeping on mats on the floor. What makes these even more beautiful is how Milner uses white space; many of the images are wrapped in white space, and so become evocative, painful little moments. It’s the detail, really, of a big journey that’s almost too big to understand, and it’s gracefully done.

There’s a lot to love about this incredibly deft and sensitively told picture book. Bring this towards little people who are asking questions – and bring it towards those little people who aren’t. My Name Is Not Refugee has this great, great range of appeal and I have a lot of time for it, I really do.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The New School at Scawdale : Angela Brazil

The New School at ScawdaleThe New School at Scawdale by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for Angela Brazil and The New School at Scawdale is a very distinctively Brazil book. It drifts rather pleasantly from set piece to set piece but doesn’t really do much with what it has. Back in the day Angela would have been all ‘here’s a Nazi spy!’ and ‘here’s a long lost relative!’ and ‘hey, here’s a mysterious castle’ or some such, but The New School at Scawdale simply moves on.

None of this is, however, to say that it’s a bad book. Far from it, The New School At Scawdale is almost the epochal Brazil text. It’s jolly, and vibrant, and the girls roar with character. There’s that distinctive reluctance to use the word ‘said’ – characters frown, expostulate, ejaculate, quaver, demur and wail (p110, all) and my vocabulary shoots up immensely as a result. There’s that brief bit where we all bang on about Nature For A Bit, and there’s that other brief bit where An Accident Is Swiftly Averted. There’s also some curiously distinct elements that sing with detail; the most notable of these is a visit for two girls to the BBC which is rendered with a knowledge that must come from a real life experience. It’s an odd note in this text that’s almost twenty or so years past where it should be, and yet it’s a note that makes this almost more real. It’s rather intriguing in its own tiny way and yet, once it’s done, it’s very definitely done.

The New School at Scawdale is a treat, but it’s nowhere near her best. It’s pleasant, it’s jolly, and it’s lovely but really it’s just a year in the life of Aileen Carey. The incidents are beautifully written, and the characterization is fiercely vigorous, but it’s not brilliant. But then, even when she wasn’t brilliant, Brazil was still sort of amazing.

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Things A Bright Girl Can Do : Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can DoThings a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, in that gloriously selfish phase of having read a Good Book but not wanting to talk about it. Sometimes I want to wallow in that sensation and just hold it tight to myself, that feeling of having read something transformative, big, honest and real. The events of the past few days have, however, reminded me of the importance of talking about this sort of thing and so here I am; earlier than I intended, because this book is not due out until September, but I think now’s the right time to tell you about it.

Sally Nicholls is a joy. She has this great gift of story; and so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Things A Bright Girl Can Do. It’s Suffragettes, it’s history, it’s bravery, it’s love. It’s gorgeous, really, and it made me so utterly possessive of it. It follows the stories of three different girls as they work to realise their political and personal views. They fall in love, out of love, and the relationships which underpin this novel are beautiful and sensitively told. Honestly too; there’s no easy racing off into the sunset here, everything has to be earned.

I loved this book. It’s so determined and genuine, and Nicholls tells the story with such a straightforward honesty that it’s hard to not get sucked in. It’s a perspective that I haven’t read enough of and so I also welcome this. To add to that, I’m also very grateful for the rise of overtly political and politicised young adult fiction. Things A Bright Girl Can Do doesn’t sugarcoat the process of becoming politically active, but it does render it as an absolutely vital experience.

And it believes in teenagers, young people. It believes in their chance and their ability to make a difference. Get this on pre-order now, and when it comes shelve it with something like Troublemakers, and let them work their respective magics.

As I said at the start of this review, I didn’t really want to talk about Things A Bright Girl Can Do because I was selfish over it. Possessive. But here’s the thing, that’s what a good book gives you. You have that moment with it and then you realise that, as great and vital as that moment is, it’s time to share it with the world because you can’t let a book that’s as good as this go unheard.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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I Have No Secrets : Penny Joelson

I Have No SecretsI Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this potent and markedly well-told thriller, not in the least the vibrant delight that is the narrator Jemma. Unable to communicate, yet possessed of a quick-thinking and fiercely distinct personality, Jemma now needs to communicate more than ever. Somebody has been murdered – and somebody’s confessed to Jemma that they did it.

Much of the strength of this book comes from Jemma; she’s a delight. Funny, warm and brave, she’s the centre of her foster family and the secrets that they hold. She witnesses her foster siblings fight their own battles, and upon the news of a personal revelation for herself, she starts to take some immense steps towards independence. It’s difficult to not root for her; She’s so well-drawn and convincing that I Have No Secrets races by.

I was in a bit of a reading dip before this, having just read a ton of things with hideous opening chapters, but I couldn’t put this down. Isn’t that cliche? Yet all cliches come from fact and in the case of I Have No Secrets it’s true. I couldn’t put it down. It was refreshing, and sort of wonderful even in how it dealt with some very dark and complex issues. To put the murder itself aside, both Olivia and Ben, Jemma’s foster-siblings, face some complex troubles of their own.

Thematically, it’s a little Wonder and a little Jacqueline Wilson, and as much as it pains me to do that compare and contrast thing, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise with this book because it’s in doing that sort of comparative analysis that you realise how this book is something furiously singular, immensely readable and something quite valuable indeed.

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