Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland : Alison Jay

Alice's Adventures In WonderlandAlice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Alison Jay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alice in Wonderland is a text that has been subject to a most phenomenal process of transformation from its original publication to date. I suspect that there are very few other children’s texts which have been integrated so wholly into our cultural consciousness; we know of the white rabbit, of the blonde girl in the blue dress, the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. We know one, or all, of these or other symbols and metaphors from the texts and even if we don’t know the context of these symbols, we know of them. Alice in Wonderland is a text that has been read, consumed, remade and reconsumed a thousand times. It is a text that stands beyond itself now, beyond its initial textual boundaries, and will, I think, continue to do so.

And so, there are many adaptations of it. Many remakings of it. Inevitably, really, what with the text being in the public domain, and thus freely available for adaptation and remixing. Some of these work better than others. All of them continue to perpetuate the ideas of Alice, the shape of her story and the tone of her world, regardless of how effectively they remake and represent their version of the original text. Alice isn’t Alice any more. She is extra-textual and in some instances, almost peritextual.

But here, in this board book, she is perfect. Alison Jay’s version of Alice stopped me in my tracks. Quite literally. I was browsing a display of Alice books in a shop, seeing all the usual suspects, and then I saw Jay’s work. It is a small boardbook, robust as all board books must be, and the cover shows a too big girl staring down at her body with surprise as she struggles to fit inside the room. One arm bends awkwardly against a door; another sprawls out of a window, and all of this is coloured in a sort of delicious sort of fresco, full of gentle warm tones upon a cracked background, as though the image has been painted on a wall and left to soak into the building, to become part of the every day structure of somebody’s life. It is lovely.

The book itself is structured in a series of double page spreads and individual images, each of which is paired with a verb taken from the Alice text: fall, run, drink, shrink, eat, grow, swim, share, smile, party, parade, play, dance, sleep. This final image sees Alice herself fall asleep on the lap of another lady dressed in pink, her skirt flowing across two pages in a rich curve that crosses from corner to corner, and her head hidden by a sunhat. It is an oddly beautiful moment to end the book and one that speaks well of its consideration of its target readership. Books like this are made for sharing, for teaching about books and colours and shapes, and though some of the images are quite abstract and some of the words a little complex when viewed in isolation: ‘share’, this is a book made for reading through in completion and embracing the gentle warmth of that last ‘sleep’ image.

I love board books like this that challenge our concept of what a board book can do. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is constructed as something quite beautiful; a languid, summery exploration of dreaming and of surreal juxtapositions of a beaming cat’s face with the pure precision of ‘smile’. This is a book to return to for quite some years.

In addition to that, I think there’s an element here that would appeal to scholars of Alice. Jay’s distinct emphasis on the dreamlike world of Wonderland is worthy of attention: her shifts in perspective, the subtle shapes of background elements and the way that Alice is very distinctly asleep at the end of it; all of these are elements that suggest something very particular about Alice and what her adventures in Wonderland actually are and have been. This is a book that, the more I look at it, the more I see. I will always stop for books that transform every time I look at them. This is a fascinating thing.

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The Secrets of Sam and Sam : Susie Day

The Secrets of Sam and SamThe Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to start this review by talking about another book. Stay with me, there’s a reason for this.

I nominated Pea’s Book of Big Dreams by Day as my pick for the Carnegie last year. The Carnegie, for those of you who don’t know it, is a big and wonderful award for children’s literature in the United Kingdom. One of the big bonuses about being a member of CILIP is that I get to pick a book. Pea’s Book of Big Dreams was my pick for last year. I chose it because, really, it’s perfect.

And I rather suspect that The Secrets of Sam and Sam might be right up there for my pick for this year.

Day is so good. Seriously. Her books are just a constant joy of humour, of emotion, of life and of living and of siblings. She’s one of my epochal authors; a writer who can give you heart and soul and Cover Important Things and biscuits and just wrap it all up in a perfect little package of just proper good bookishness. I want to cry, really, because I’ve literally just finished this book (one, which I dropped everything to read) and I want to start it all over again.

I love her books. I love The Secrets of Sam and Sam so much.

I love it because it is a coming of age story in a family that is full of adults that are not perfect, children who are trying to figure out who they are, and drooly occasionally-green dogs. Sam and Sam have previously appeared in the very wonderful Pea Books and this is their solo adventure. The Sams have two mums, one occasionally-green dog, biscuits and secrets. Lots of secrets. Growing up is hard. Sam is struggling to come to terms with hummus and heights, whilst his sister Sammie is navigating the whole deep water that is best friends in year six. Everything around them is changing and it’s time for some secrets to be told, others to be kept and basically I love this book, I love what Day does, I love that she gets that moment when you suddenly realise that you’ve become somebody but now (thank you hormones and teenager-ness) you have to be somebody else and you’re not really sure who that somebody else does. I love that her books tell you so wholeheartedly that it’s okay to be different, that it’s okay to be who you are and that yes, that journey is complicated, but you’ll get there eventually and it’ll be okay.

I’m babbling. I love this book. I was excited about it the moment I heard about it, and now I’m just rapturously in love with it. Just, I say, just. I don’t think anything could quite coherently express my admiration for the work of Day at this point.

(TL:DR? Book good. Read book).

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I just read my first ever Jane Austen – and this is what I learnt in the process

Reading’s a funny old thing isn’t it? (She says, lighting a pipe and putting on slippers). You find your groove; you find the sagas or the mysteries or the girls who write stories sitting in the kitchen sink, and you find yourself in the finding of these spaces. It’s a sort of chicken and egg thing; a circular, self-reflexive process. You read yourself into spaces, spaces which don’t exist until you read yourself into them. Jo and her chopped hair. Daddy, my daddy. Bernhilda tipping the ink all over herself (this last one is a bit niche, but I’m aware there’s a substantial amount of you who will get this and I admire you all greatly for that). All of these moments exist in a sort of limbo until you read them and give life to them. And it’s through your reading that you find out who you are. You find the moments that matter to you and that make you who you are. And those moments start to cumulatively work inside of you; they swell and grow and help you to become the person that you always had the potential to be. It’s just that those books gave you a little bit of a shove in the right direction.

So what happens to the books that you don’t read? What happens to the authors that you know of – Hardy, Beckett, Atwood – authors who hold a very specific cultural place in the world and figure in your world and yet  – don’t. Goodnight Moon. Green Eggs and Ham. Anne of Green Gables. All books that I know and don’t know. And, in the case of Anne of Green Gables in particular, books that I’ve tried but just – haven’t – worked for me. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it but I couldn’t even get past the first chapters of Anne. And what does that mean? What does that do to me as a reader?

Until fifteen minutes ago, I’d never read a Jane Austen.

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Max’s Wagon : Barbro Lindgren & Eva Eriksson

Max's WagonMax’s Wagon by Barbro Lindgren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t review that many board books. A lot of this is due to the fact that they’re just not really things that come across my radar. Some of this is due to the fact that they’re always fairly well beaten up in any library (and this is a good sign, trust me, because they’re being heavily used) and also because I’ve never seen much space in the books to *allow* me to review them. Picture books, yes, they’re full of space – but board books? They’re complex beasts; texts designed more to engage a child with the *idea* of literacy than literacy itself (which is something, by the way, that I shall be writing about in the future). I find them fascinating but I never really found them reviewable.

“Max’s car goes in the wagon”

Until now.

(She says, dramatically).

Max’s Wagon is an utter joy. It’s probably the most perfect board book I’ve ever read. I picked up whilst shelving one day and flicked through with vague interest. This vague interest of mine turned to a rapid and intense love. It’s a simple, elegant story. Max is putting things into his wagon. This includes toys and his dog; a mildly perplexed, Gromit-esque hound who obediently jumps in and then helps Max to pick up all the things that fall out of the wagons. Max’s ball gets put into the wagon, it falls out, and gets put back in. Max’s car gets put into the wagon, falls out, and gets put back in. Max’s cookie goes into the wagon, falls out …. and ?

“Dog gets the cookie /

The cookie has gone /

Where is the cookie?”

kk

kk

The last panel; a *very* innocent dog sits on the side of a wagon being carefully studies by Max who is very concerned as to where his cookie has gone. Nothing is explicit, there’s no crumbs on the dogs face but the teddy is looking right at the dog (and so’s Max, his body language is towards the dog) and so our eyeline is automatically drawn to the right hand side of the page. And the dog? Well, he’s sat there with an expression very familiar to anybody who has ever done anything that they shouldn’t have done. It’s adorable. Such a small moment but it’s so vividly drawn and constructed, the dialogue between the understated text and the understated drawing, I could bang on for hours about this panel but I won’t. Suffice to say, it’s beautiful.

“Where is the cookie?”

That little note of doubt (who ate the cookie? Where’s the cookie gone?) is such a glorious way to end this because it opens the book up to questions and dialogue and conversation. It opens up a reader to the possibility of a conversation going beyond the space of the book and that possibility is something that can be returned to and interrogated as the child grows up. It’s just perfect and I love this book so much for what it gives to the reader. Because it’s everything.

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Dog Ears : Anne Booth

Dog EarsDog Ears by Anne Booth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I read ‘Dog Ears’ I became increasingly aware of how Blytonian it felt to me. And not Enid Blyton at her worst, but rather Enid Blyton at her best – stories of children being children and trying to exist in a world that adults had shaped for them. ‘Dog Ears’ for me, reads like a warm-hearted, true, honest and contemporary Blyton and I think (I hope) that this is a space that Booth will revel in and continue to make her own.

‘Dog Ears’ is written from the perspective of Anna who spends the book in a conversation with Timmy her golden retriever. He is the only thing that listens to her and, as a result of this, he hears the truth about her world. And the truth is this: Anna is struggling. Her mother’s attention is on her new younger brother Jack, her father is away for work, and Anna’s gran is being a bit scary and trying to help Anna help the family but really not helping out at all. Anna’s getting forgotten in the middle. There’s nobody to wash her uniform, nobody to help her with her homework, and nobody to help her get the right ingredients together for food tech. Things, as you may imagine, cannot continue the way they are. Anna’s caring for everybody but nobody’s caring for Anna.

Booth’s writing is very, very genuine. She sort of puts ‘Dog Ears’ into a space where it’s not okay for this sort of thing to be happening but you can see why it does and – maybe more importantly – you can understand the way that people act how they do. I can’t think of many other authors that can present the world with this sort of honesty. There’s also a very sensitively handled subplot about some of the other children in Anna’s class who, it turns out, are experiencing similar issues. What’s also worthwhile noting is that there’s a very well-handled afternote from Booth in the book and also several links and details to charities which support young carers. ‘Dog Ears’ is presented very very well and this last section of supportive resources is an excellent touch on both the part of Booth and of Catnip, the publishers.

I like ‘Dog Ears’. I like it a lot. I like the genuine nature of it and the way it’s never horribly didactic. I like Booth’s warmth and love in her writing; the genuine curve of a sentence that just captures children’s speech and the funny little asides that, even in a very serious book, are full of humour. I like that this book exists. I like that a lot. There’s such a space for books like this and I would like more please, thank you.

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Fire Colour One : Jenny Valentine

Fire Colour OneFire Colour One by Jenny Valentine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books like Fire Colour One make me realise the inadequacy of my rating scheme. So let’s make a pact for the duration of this review: ratings do not exist. This is a book which, quite fittingly, flares and fades and sometimes – just when you find that point of stillness at the heart of the flame – this book gives you something quite wonderful. A book of contradictions? No. I think more a book that swells and lives in a way that is quite extraordinary but equally – complex.

Oh. I start and stop with this review. I am full of fragments. Perhaps then, it would be best to examine each of them on their own merit and hope that that brings some structure together for my thoughts on Fire Colour One.

One: the cover design is beautiful. Genuinely so. It is a book that pulsates with colour and life. This book looks so beautiful. It is exuberant and enticing and unusual.

Two: plot. Narrative. Story. Character. Fire Colour One has something of the Du Maurier about it; that sort of complex story of darkness and family and secrets and lies. It is a story that took me a long time to pin down – and as you can see by this review, I’m still in that process. But: Fire Colour One is life. Death. Moments of connection with family and friends and realising who and what you are going to be.

Three: Sometimes, I think, stories like this are some of the hardest to pin down from a reader’s space. I described it once as there being books which need to be read and books which don’t. Books which have a space for the reader, which need to be read in order to exist and books that do not.
And with a book like this, with its story of Iris who starts fires, her best friend who lives Art and Iris’ mother who loves and does not love, and her father who has days left to live and to rediscover the daughter he thought he’d lost, there are moments when this book does not need you. That is both a comment on the quality of life within Valentine’s narrative; the rich lyricism of her paragraphs, but also a comment on reading itself: I am a selfish reader. I want my reading to matter. It is sometimes complicated to marry that perspective to texts which are so resolutely alive without being read.

Four: Ratings. Good. Bad. Fire Colour One is an intriguingly complex experience; edible, joyful paragraphs, wild lines, and yet I struggled with it at times. It is a slow, fast read. It took me a few attempts to ‘get’ it; and I don’t think I have, yet.

Five: It is a book that feels like new space for both Valentine and young adult literature and that I welcome most hugely. This feels like a statement album book, a concept piece, a marker on the world, and I wonder (and can’t wait) as to what’s coming next.

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The London Eye Mystery : Siobhan Dowd

The London Eye MysteryThe London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s books like ‘The London Eye Mystery’ that make me consider how we use the word ‘good’. Good. It’s such a space of a word. It’s sort of phatic at points; things are good, we are good, everything is good, let’s move this conversation on and talk about other things. Good. This book was good, this film is good, but when we say things are good, we tend to move on. Good is an opener to a conversation. Good begins thoughts and arguments and declarations of love. Good, conversely, is rarely good enough.

So I think that this review and this book is the space where we begin to reclaim the word good. ‘The London Eye Mystery’ by Siobhan Dowd is a book that is so very much on point that it is the sort of book that reclaims space and redefines worlds. It is a mystery set, quite uniquely, in and around the London Eye. Ted and his sister, Kat, take their cousin Salim onto the Eye. For reasons, Salim ends up boarding the Eye by himself. And he does not come down. It’s up to Ted with the help of Kat to find out what’s happened whilst all around them, their family crumbles with the impact of Salim’s disappearance.

This book is so present. It’s hard to define really because all I want to say is that it’s good. I’m rephrasing myself here in so many different ways and realising that they all end up in the same place – it’s a good book. It’s a very good book. It’s a heartfelt, warm-hearted text and one which, do note, has some suddenly intense and poignant moments that are so precisely judged that they sing in a book full of high notes. Revisiting it for my PhD was nothing short of a joy.

And do you want to know why?

Because it was good. The London Eye Mystery is a very good book and reading (and rereading) very good books will never, ever be a chore.

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