The Murderer’s Ape : Jakob Wegelius

The Murderer's ApeThe Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The titular Murderer’s Ape is Sally Jones and she’s also our narrator for this gently told story of murder, double-crosses and false imprisonment. It’s an interesting note to take for such a dramatic series of topics but then again, Sally Jones is an interesting figure. She’s the best friend of the Chief, and together they run a cargo boat. She’s the engineer, who lives with humans, and although she doesn’t speak she can understand everything that they say. The Chief and Sally Jones take on a job and it ends badly; the Chief is accused of murder, and Sally is forced to go on the run. Can she clear his name? Can she survive?

I read the hardcover edition from Pushkin Press (my thanks to them for the review copy), and it is a beautiful edition. I bang on a lot about the importance of design when it comes to books and this is perfectly and distinctly done. A book can look good, but one that looks good and distinct? That’s important, and it’s nicely done here.

Quietly and lengthily told, The Murderer’s Ape isn’t, perhaps, the quickest of books. It took me a while to read, but it wasn’t a traumatic process in the slightest. Narrated by Sally Jones, this is a quiet tale of peril and trauma that skates the edge of some nasty topics (anarchism, forced imprisonment, the idle rich, revolutionaries, and abusive relationships) whilst never quite wholly engaging with them. Some of this distance comes from Sally’s position of remove, never quite accepted for who she is except for when she’s with her friends, and the overall effect is rather one of gentle disturbance.

That’s not to say that this book doesn’t pose some big questions. Far from it. Sally is constantly required to assert her presence in a world that is not wholly comfortable with her, and that question of negotiated identity is something very important to children’s and young adult literature. The best of these books allow our protagonists to find out who they are and, more to the point, who they can be. Sally is aided and abetted on her quest by a variety of characters who illustrate both the good and bad sides of humanity. It’s up to Sally to decide how to live, and to survive.

For me, The Murderer’s Ape sits somewhere on the lower edge of Young Adult, and on the higher edge of Middle Grade literature, and that is something I welcome very much. This is a book which should be placed into the hands of those who want meaty content, but may be, perhaps, unable to deal with the darkest edge of what young adult can (and indeed, should!) provide. The short and precise chapters, told in Sally’s clean and clear prose also would fit very nice as a bedtime read. There are eighty so it may be a lengthy process, but then again there’s nothing wrong with a slow read and in fact, it’s something that might prove quite appropriate to this rich and classic tale.

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Poo Bum : Stephanie Blake

Poo BumPoo Bum by Stephanie Blake

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I get books recommended to me a lot. Poo Bum has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while; but when a lovely librarian friend of mine told me that it got the “best reaction she’d ever had” at story time, it slid right to the top. Story time is one of those very specific tests for picture books and not all of them manage to pass it. Not all of them should pass it, in a way, because some picture books are made for very close and confidential shared reading, but those that do pass it are very special beasts. They’re books which translate to a very wide audience in a very short period of time. And they’re books which, when handled by a good librarian, help to make reading an event, a moment which burns very precisely and potently in the brain, and helps to pull young readers on a journey that’s going to last them a lifetime.

Poo Bum is outstanding. It’s wicked and naughty and just far enough past that edge of inappropriate to feel naughty, but not to far so that people get alienated. I’m loathe to give you too much details because really, the twists in this story are everything so I’ll settle with the blurb that simply says: “Once there was a little rabbit who could only say one thing…” As you’ll remember the title of this book is ‘Poo Bum’, you might imagine what that thing is…

The copy I’ve got from the library aches with being read a thousand times, and I love that so much that I can hardly deal with it. That’s another test for a picture book; the audience is still learning to figure out the idea of the book itself, and books that can survive that wear and tear whilst keeping the essence of themselves together, are very important things. Poo Bum is rendered in such potent artwork, and punchy text, that I suspect it would survive the apocalypse. The colours are bold, often primary, and often still have the tangible mark of creation on them; those lines and scratches that show you exactly where the pauses and edges were.

And oh, this is funny. It’s funny and it’s smart, and I can see exactly why it hit home. Turns out librarians know exactly what they’re on about. Who’d have thought?

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Why We Took The Car : Wolfgang Herrndorf

Why We Took the CarWhy We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After spending time as a writer in residence for a road, I’ve been increasingly interested in the role of ‘roads’ in children’s and young adult literature. Young adult literature, in fact, has a perfect sort of marriage with the metaphor of the road, where the open road promises freedom, independence and self-determination, and it’s a sense of liberty which is always in sharp contrast to that which exists at home. Furiously well known in its original German, Why We Took The Car is a translated novel that sometime burns with brilliance and sometimes widely misses the mark. It’s a book of dualities where sadness battles with raw and fierce happiness, and nothing sometimes battles with everything. I think it is occasionally rather perfect. Sometimes it is not. But then again, that’s the sort of delicious thing about roadtrip novels; there are moments, as with every journey, that the getting there matters as much as the destination itself. The journey might be quieter, duller, but it’s still so very important.

So here are our travellers: Mike, our narrator, who is a boy who doesn’t fit in, and a new boy at his school called Tschick. Tschick doesn’t fit in either, being an emigre from Russia, and also possessed of problems of his own. A slow twist of circumstances and parental absences lead Tschick to give Mike a dare. It’s time to go on a road trip. Tschick has a stolen Lada, Mike has some money, and the open road’s calling them…

Messy, wild, eccentric, this is a book that burns on the edge of the world. I liked it a lot. It’s scrappy at points, and very definitely not perfect, but then again there’s a point to be made that a teenage narrator who’s just had the trip of his life wouldn’t ever be especially coherent. Yet that’s not to say that there isn’t potency here; there’s an encounter with a family that is one of the best and most brilliantly unexpected things I’ve read with a long while, and the final movement of the book itself is kind of awe-inspiring. I think that’s the best way I can describe Why We Took The Car; sometimes it is perfect, and sometimes it is not. Such is life. And sometimes, you don’t know that, until you go out and live it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Visual literacies, comics and Mark Twain : An Interview with Dylan Calder of Pop Up Projects

I’m lucky enough to be attending an event tomorrow which focuses on something very dear to my heart – visual storytelling. As you’ll know from my picture book reviews in particular, visual literacy is an important and powerful thing that is, so often, misunderstood or denied its critical relevance. Pop Up Lab, the brainchild of Pop Up Projects, is looking to address that in a day devoted to the topic, with contributions from some really exciting people working in the area. 

Pop Up Projects was founded by Dylan Calder, and I’m very excited to say that I have an interview with him to share with you today. I asked him a few questions about his organisation, visual storytelling and the role that comics currently – and should – play in the classroom. 

Dylan Calder of Pop Up Projects

Dylan Calder

Did You Ever Stop To Think : What prompted the organisation being formed and why focus on children’s books in particular?

Dylan: We are driven by a desire to see children from all walks of life access and enjoy literature – not just as something to be studied and deconstructed in school examinations – and, fundamentally, to encounter author role models – people who write and illustrate for a living. Children’s authors, in the main, have this extraordinary ability to show children what’s possible, what you can achieve, what you can strive to be through the writing, drawing and making of stories. We’re not here to sell books to families who already read widely; we’re here to bring literature to life in ordinary, mundane, diverse, deprived and isolated places. We want to tap into that audience of readers who are yearning for great literature but due to curriculums, budgets, closed libraries, family economies, and teachers who don’t know what’s relevant and contemporary, aren’t accessing it.

Why have you chosen to focus on visual literacy now, and what you see this as covering? How would you define visual literacy to the interested onlooker?

Visual literacy is the most inclusive form of reading and writing you can do. It’s simultaneously complex and accessible, and children of all abilities and needs can read and tell visual stories. Visual stories are – in my words – narratives told in sequential images, although individual images can in themselves contain single narratives.

How do you think comics currently function in a classroom? What role do they play? And, in an ideal world, what role should they play?

I don’t think they even feature. I think teachers who have a pre-existing passion for them would use them; probably most would go down the superhero route – which is great as it’s the route many kids take into reading enjoyment. But comics can be truly complex things – wonderful in the expanse of their narratives, often breaking out of the frames to challenge and disrupt form. They’re the perfect things with which to study sequential narratives, pace and cliff–hangers, and – most importantly of all – that writers’ rule of ‘show not tell’. Comics are collaborations too (writer, illustrator, colourist, letterer, editor, art director) – and they have restrictions (format, dimensions, number of pages, colour schemes) – which help structure the stories. Comics have a lot to teach about writing– and, let’s not forget, comics are written; they’re not in any way some lower form of literature. I’m not at all into literary hierarchies, but if I were then I’d put comics – great comics – right at the top. And by comics I also mean graphic novels, graphic reportage, graphic memoir – all those ‘higher–brow’ ways of saying ‘serious comics’. Comics are where diversity is happening more. Check out the multicultural cast of characters in something like The Wicked and The Damned (and it’s the rule, not the exception, in many comics publishers) and tap into the world of comics memoirs to learn all about growing up in Iran, Kashmir, Palestine.

Is there one tip you’d give people who want to help children develop their visual literacies?

Give them illustration at every age. Don’t tell them they’re too old for anything. Encourage them to draw; to mimic illustrators and their styles; to draw as much as write stories. Look for the complexity in illustrated books and comics. Explore comics with children, explore comics yourself; there’s a lot of seriously incredible stuff out there.

And finally what’s your favourite children’s book?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn – it’s not considered a children’s book anymore but was so radical and beyond it’s time; the first novel in the dialect of a poor illiterate kid; and the story of an abused boy forming an incredible, beautiful bond with an abused man would be radical event today. I’ve read it six times.

Images courtesy of Pop Up Projects. Thank you! 

An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings : Rob Hodgson and Aidan Onn

An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Rob Hodgson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like this. A joint production by Rob Hodgson, and Aidan Onn, it was Hodgson’s artwork that originally caught my eye, with its exuberant and definite renderings of creatures ranging from the Sphinx through to the Werewolf and the Kraken. Hodgson delivers such rich and deliciously dark work, that manages to juxtapose a childish aesthetic with some gorgeous little touches. Let me explain a little more about that phrase of ‘childish aesthetic’ as I think it’s one that’s worthwhile to explore here. The visual literacies of children fascinate me because they are marked with a sort of infinite potential. A line on a page could be a pony, a house, or a comment on post-modernism. And yes, some of that has to do with the development of motor skills, but it also has to do with the fact that children can work in this sort of creative world of infinite potential. It’s the same with writing, and any other creative practice; we learn to work within frames. And that’s a good thing, because when we subsequently break them and remake them, we are better than what we were before. Learn the rules. Break the rules. But don’t forget to embrace that period of before, where a horse can have three heads or an antelope can sit down for tea. And that’s what I mean with Hodgson’s work, he kind of goes ‘here’s a blue minotaur’ or ‘here’s a pink Kraken’, and you believe it because it is delivered with such emphatic affirmation. It’s great.

One thing to note is that this a book that deserves a better cover than the one it has. The world of children’s picture books is a busy one, and this cover isn’t ideal. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork that reoccurs in the book itself as the illustration to the ‘Troll’ page, but when people describe it as dull and dark to me then that’s feedback I need to note and recognise. Admittedly you’ll not see many picture books which go for the dark blue palette of this cover, and there’s an argument for it standing out for that reason, but equally there’s a question to be asked about the cover when it comes to reprints. A similar question could be asked about the unexploited space of the endpapers at that point.

So, to sum, there are parts of this book that are under-exploited, but there are points that fiercely and satisfyingly hit the spots. I can imagine this going down well with a primary audience (expect lots of shrieks), and also as part of some dark and deliciously wintry creative writing and imaginative artwork sessions. I can also imagine it pairing very well with something like Bernard by Rob Jones.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Tinyletter

A quick note to say that I am launching a Tinyletter! You can sign up here or below. This Tinyletter will be all about bookish things and buns; a delicious combination, no? Basically nice things, and if you think it is your bag, then please come and join me 🙂

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Conversations with dead authors : Enid Blyton

 

  1. Enid Blyton

“Can you write a biography of somebody without ever knowing the true facts? Why, you barely know anything about me.”

She’s bored and not trying to hide it. I suspect that she never hides the way that she feels. I saw the little flash of irritation when they took a little too long to bring her tea and I watch her now as she bites down on her cake to discover jam inside of it.

“Jam,” she says, with tight fury, “Jam should never be unexpectedly found in things. It should always be obvious. It should be announced and spread lavishly on bread thick with butter, and it should be on scones,” – she draws out the o, rounding it with feeling – “but never, never, unexpectedly on a cake.”

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