Lyra’s Oxford : Philip Pullman

Lyra's Oxford (His Dark Materials, #3.5)Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This book contains a story and several other things.”

So opens this slim and quiet little volume of Lyra’s Oxford, a book that truly contains a story and several other things, but maybe Other Things is how we should think of these latter objects for: “They might have come from anywhere. They might have come from other worlds. That scribbled-on map, that publisher’s catalogue -they might have been put down absent-mindedly in another universe and been blown by a chance wind through an open window, to find themselves after many adventures on a a market-stall in our world.”

(This quote, these ideas, they are perfect to me for they talk of the split between our world and the world of the literature, the ephemeral nature of reading, identifying and *living* a text, the shift between fiction and fact, the blurred edge of books, the cliff-edge of reading…)

The central story of this rich volume concerns Lyra and Pantalaimon. It is set after the events of His Dark Materials and so certain things have occured. Certain shifts in the world have happened. And for every action there is a reaction. For every pebble dropped in the water, there is an echo upon the shore. This is that echo. This is that reaction.

The fascinating edge of this story, this collection of thoughts and ideas and of fragments, is the idea of literary space and place here. Pullman’s Oxford is a wild-edged space, shifting through identities with the effortless skill of something very old and wise and powerful. It is as much a character in the books as Lyra and Pan and Will and all.

And the thrilling and terrifying edge to this Oxford is that it is visitable. One can drive up the road and into this city full of story and richness and of the darkest edges. This is something acknowledged in Lyra’s Oxford as the book provides you with a map to the centre of the city. The tangible joy of folding out this map is not to be underestimated. And the conceptual groundbreaking of such a move! To unfold this map of Lyra’s Oxford is to lay this Oxford (accessible by Train and River and Zeppelin) against *our* Oxford – or is it our Oxford? Are the two not one and the same? Is our Oxford simply a face of the city; a reflection caught in glass, and is this its true face? A city full of museums and of zeppelins and colleges and Botanic Gardens with one lonely bench underneath a low-branched tree?

And even now as I write this, I am drawn back to my memories of Oxford and of walking those streets, and seeing a glint of something fly across the roof and of seeing a small girl in the doorway of one of the colleges. I am pulled back into this space of Other Things; this edge, this cliff-edge, and I am lifting my arms and I am flying, I am gone.

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(I write further on the map in Lyra’s Oxford here)

Neill Cameron talking comics – #fcbg15 recap

One of the panels I attended was delivered by the very excellent Neill Cameron. Amongst many other things, he’s currently the artist in residence at the lovely Story Museum in Oxford. As part of this work, he runs a weekly comics club which is doing some delightful and brilliant things – have a look at their twitter account here.

He gave a smart and savvy introduction to comics, and what I was very struck by were his points about how comics is an accessible art. It’s something we are already doing – we just don’t know it. We all make marks, doodles – we can all draw stick men. Ergo comics.

One idea which I wanted to share with you was the suggestion to use mini figures in comics. We’ve all got something around the house – a doll, a teddy, a pokemon keyring, a lego figure … The idea is to use these as your figures in the comics – lay them down on a piece of paper, draw a speech bubble and background and voila, comics! I loved this because it’s so easy for children (and adults, cough, cough, side-eye to camera) to become intimidated. And you shouldn’t be. Using these figures (especially, say, a beloved teddy or a toy) and putting them into adventures is a perfect way to bridge somebody into creative work without them being terrified and intimidated in the process.

Neill also made some important points about the potential of comics. He showed a page from Daredevil which followed the characters from street level down into a subway station – all on the same page. It was a beautiful, fluid series of moments which spoke really of the great heights of storytelling that can be achieved in comics through combining visuals, narrative and bold use of the narrative space. And just think what this sort of stuff shows any juvenile reader! It’s telling them that they can break the rules once they *know* the rules. That this space is theirs to address and to shift and change and to *mould* for their purposes.

You can view a brief recap of tweets below from the session itself and my amazing (I’m pretty much the new Da Vinci) attempt at creating the entire Chalet School series in one comic. I’d like to draw your attention to the subtle use of chiaroscuro, the elegant juxtaposition of line and movement ….

This is some of what caught my eye @ #fcbg15

I know it's not a book, but this is an amazing bag from Hot Key.

I know it’s not a book, but this is an amazing bag from Hot Key & Picadilly. They Get It.

I have been at The Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference over the weekend – you can catch up on Tweets here. It was quite the thing. One of the highlights for me was the Publishers’ Exhibition whereby you can catch up with lovely people and find out all about their new titles. I thought I’d share some of the things that caught my eye with you in a slide show below…

I have some proofs of some amazing titles to share as well – I’ll be reviewing these over the next few weeks before sending them off to my librarian friends. Just to give you an idea of some of the titles, I’ll be featuring (she says, all nonchalant like) they include: ‘One’ by Sarah Crossan, ‘The Wolf Wilder’ by Katherine Rundell and ‘Me and Mr J’ by Rachel McIntyre.

And finally I have to share this piece of news with you all … (I’ll let you imagine how big a shriek of joy I had to stifle upon hearing this…)

The Borrowers : Mary Norton

The Borrowers The Borrowers by Mary Norton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“It was Mrs May who first told me about them. No, not me. How could it have been me – a wild, untidy, self-willed little girl who stared with angry eyes and was said to crunch her teeth? Kate, she should have been called. Yes, that was it – Kate. Not that the name matters much either way: she barely comes into the story.”

This tonally, thematically, textually, totally, perfect paragraph is the opening to the seminal classic ‘The Borrowers’. And it has given us everything. The perfect usage of a colon. The perfect side-stepping of reality into imagination. That – that, doubt, that everything is quite how it should be in what is to come.

And so we begin. The Borrowers are very very small people who live underneath floorboards and behind the kitchen clock. They live alongside their ‘human beans’, not stealing from them but borrowing. A potato here. A piece of blotting paper there. A pin. A tuft from the carpet. Things so small that they won’t be missed because their owners will think that they’ve just lost them. An odd sock. Scissors. A hair clip. You know it. We’ve all done it. Maybe you’ve got Borrowers too …?

These Borrowers live in isolation, underneath the floorboards. Father Pod, mother Homily and their daughter Arietty borrow from their human beans and it all goes well for a while. But then things start to change. They are the last borrowers to live in their house. And the house itself is changing.

A boy has come to live in the house, to recuperate and to get well. He is a boy who believes in fairies. In magic. And one day he ‘sees’ Arietty.

Being seen is the worst thing that can happen to a Borrower. Being seen never leads to anything good happening.

In fact it can lead to very bad things happening.

Norton’s book is timeless. It is terrifying, too, and doesn’t skim over the darkness of humanity. It is witty, sharp and kind. It is such a luscious book, really, and it is one that captures that moment when the teenager wants to be somebody in their own right quite perfectly.

Also, though I won’t reproduce the ending here, it has one of the cleverest and most perfect endings I have read for a while. It is a book that is very quietly massive. And I love it, really, I love that wild acceptance of something else existing in the world, I love that blurring of the edges of real and imaginary space, I love that – potential for ‘otherness’ – that Norton gives the reader. It is such a book this.

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Series fiction, Glee, and the Babysitters Club : a few thoughts

According to Wikipedia, by the time the Babysitters Club series finished publishing in 2000, there had been 213 novels published. Another series, publishing around the same sort of timeframe (ish) was the Thoroughbred series which hit 72 books by the time it finished in 2005.

And Glee finished recently, after 728 musical performances and 121 episodes.

There’s a connection here, a slow ephemeral sort of connection, and it’s something I’ve been trying to think how best to phrase over the past few days that I’ve wanted to write this post.

I used to love Glee. There are moments, still, in it which blow my mind. Moments of pure unbridled character (that moment when she almost howls “Don’t forget me” is perfect, painfully so) and soul-splitting hope (this is just everything, really), expressed all through music and song and dance. I am a soft touch for a song and dance number. Always have been. Always will. And sometimes, when I can come across character moments like that, moments which make you look twice at an emotion which has been all over screen or literature (how many times have we read about love? about hate? How many times has somebody sung a song about how much they love somebody?) then I will always stop. Always. How can I not when I am being given something so new and so different and so glorious and over and over again?

And that was my Glee.

It was also my Babysitters Club, my Thoroughbred series, my Chalet School, my Famous Five, …

(It’s also, in a way, why I remain fascinated with the WWE. It’s a story that never, ever ends. How amazing is that? How *terrifying* is that?)

It’s also the world of the Adam Blade books, the Daisy Meadows, the Jenny Oldfield… (and regardless of how you may feel about them, these books have flown out of every library I’ve ever worked at – and I suspect a lot of that is due to the familiarity of the series, of the structure of the books, and of the sheer fact that there’s always something *more* to read of them. And that’s an amazing thing to witness in a child who is hungry for more, and I will always, always try and facilitate their reading)

But the Daisy Meadows et al are for a younger age group than the Thoroughbred series were, I think. And in a way, I miss those sorts of children’s books that grew with you. That you could dip in and out of, fall in and out of love with, that you could pick it up and put down and have maybe years in between them before coming back and finding that same world there, just paused and ready and waiting for you. Timeless.

I hunger for series fiction; I hunger to go back to that world and to have that experience again I hunger for it. I memorialise it. I am greedy for it.  I’m this far from buying the entire series of Jinny books. And that’s all because I want to go back to it. That I ache for that writing. For those moors. For Shantih.

We binge now on box sets. A weekend of Game of Thrones. Of Breaking Bad.

I wonder what it would be like if we binged on books. I wonder if there’s still a space for something like The Babysitters Club in this world.

God, I hope there is.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses : Ian Falconer


This is Olivia. Olivia is awesome. This book is awesome. I shall be using awesome quite a lot throughout this review, so I just wanted to warn you in advance.

I want you to take a moment and think about every signal that that front cover is giving you about how it wants to be read. About how it should be read, really, it’s more than want somehow. I want you to think about the colours used. I want you to think about the fact that there is only a title. I want you to think about the size of that title and of the shift of fonts. I want you to read it out loud and try to read that title as the fonts and the size and the placement is asking you to read it. Everything on a perfect cover like this is done for a reason. Everything. And there is everything on this cover and it is just being given to you on a plate.

Olivia first page

Olivia first page

And then we have this. What I want you to take from this page (apart from sheer genuine delight at how perfect a picture book can be and how it can say so much with one single page) is the idea of placement. This is a fairly well sized book. There’s a lot of page. And here we have Olivia, slap bang in the middle of the first page, right in the centre of your eyeline and she is suffering from the weight of the world (embodied by this heavy and close text, right above her) and it is awesome. It is a page that is just perfect and every time I look at it, I crack up. Genuinely. (And if you’re interested more about placement and white space, go and have a look at what I thought of ‘Ellen and Penguin’ by Clara Vulliamy which is a divine example of such a thing).

So. We have a book that in two short moments (for we must always include the front cover in such a consideration) has given us everything. It’s given us Olivia; a pig who is so glorious that her character spills from every line drawn. She is exuberant. Vivid. And she is, as that title has told us, quite definitely a star.

This book is full of transcendent moments. I won’t spoil the plot (because really, the beats of Falconer’s storytelling are something quite delightful and that should be experienced first hand). I will, however, leave you with some more moments.

And the word awesome.

Because this book really is.


God I love this book.

You can view all the other picture books in depth posts here (and that tag also includes my a-z of picture book terminology – all the things I think about when I review a picture book).

Remember that list I keep of children’s books set in the UK?

Did you know that I keep a few reading lists here and update them when I come across something relevant? One of those lists was a list of titles set in the UK. This all came from one of those late night conversations on Twitter where I and a few others wondered whether you could read your way around the UK. Turns out you can. You so can and should. Really, there’s some splendid books out there. We’re so incredibly lucky with what’s out there.

Well, that was then and this was now. Today, I’m letting you know that that list has evolved. Basically, it was once a Pikachu and now it’s gone all Raichu. As part of my PhD (I’m doing a Phd, have I mentioned it? ;) ), it’s evolving into a much more specific and user friendly sheet. The data on this sheet is free of duplicates, of typos (there were a lot…), and all those lovely white gaps are going to get filled in with some very specific data – such as full citation details, actual specifics of locations features, and their real life equivalents where applicable.

And I thought I’d let you have a look at it now in a sort of covert, sneaky peek sort of manner. Shush. Keep it under your hat. Don’t tell anyone. :)