Max’s Bear : Barbro Lindgren & Eva Eriksson

Max's BearMax’s Bear by Barbro Lindgren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The board book is an odd beast and one that it’s very easy to get wrong. They’re books that revel less in the text and more in the experience; of the pushing, the pulling, the chewing and the tasting. Board books are the books that teach you what reading is; that it happens in the crook of your mother’s arms, or at bedtime, and they teach you that this experience is good and that it is fun. They are the guidelines of the bookish world, robust and stubbornly built things that teach little ones about the world around them whilst also surviving that phase of interaction with said little one.

I love Max’s Bear; part of the Max series by Barbro Lindgren. I’ve reviewed Max’s Wagon beforehand, and Max’s Bear is a similarly glorious thing. So is Max’s Bath, by the way, and I would happily recommend a set of these being purchased as an early reading present. They are classy, classy books; rich too, in that quiet and subtle way, and a genuine delight. Sometimes board books can border on the edge of impracticality; clever paper folds and tricks that won’t last a moment, or garish and poorly constructed storytelling that’s done with very little skill. These books are lovely, lovely things.

Max’s Bear is a simple, clean story that is well told. Each double page has text on the left; a sentence on a simple white page (the longest in the book is six words), accompanied by a dreamy image on the right hand side. As ever with good picture books, the images give so, so much to long and leisurely investigation.

At the start of the book, Max is asleep. Upon being woken by his dog, Max produces his bear and starts to play with it. Underneath his bed, Max’s dog starts to chew on shoes in a contented distraction. The dog climbs into Max’s bed. Max throws the bear up in the air, and it lands in his potty. The dog realises that something’s gone wrong, gets off the bed and rescues the bear before bringing him back to Max. Happiness is restored.

It is lovely.

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Mango and Bambang : Polly Faber & Clara Vulliamy

Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig (Mango & Bambang, #1)Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve never been the timeliest of book bloggers.

A part of that stems from the books that I love; those richly layered books that speak of a classical sensibility and timeless potency, and those books about girls at boarding schools in Austria. I read books from 1901 alongside those from 2015, and I love to find the dialogues between them. The ties of literature. The golden ties of British children’s literature. The building blocks of our national literary voice.

I heard about Mango and Bambang a long time ago and I was thrilled. Intensely, madly, because I was lucky enough to know both Polly Faber and Clara Vulliamy online and I was, and am, a fan of their work. Vulliamy’s work is something I have blogged about before, for her art is nuanced and clever, subtle and generous, a frank delight in every page. Rich, too, with the layered detail present in them, and that clever, clever eye towards the reader. Always. A consciousness of the view and artwork that revels in such. I love her work, truly. In Mango and Bambang, Vulliamy illustrates four deliciously sized stories from Polly Faber, a blogger who I’ve similarly admired for a while. Faber’s generous and lovely and rich writing is a delight.

And so, to this book, which I was both gleeful over and mildly terrified, because I wondered in that British way of always seeing the best in things : what if I didn’t like it?

But I did.

Oh reader, how I did. How to begin to describe this package of utter loveliness, of a charming and warmly detailed friendship between a lonely girl and a tapir? Mango and Bambang is ferociously eccentric, rather brilliantly so, but through that eccentricity carves itself a space that makes me think of E Nesbit and Dodie Smith, and I love that. I love that little tingle on the back of my spine that makes me think of golden age authors, because then I know that I like this book. I like it a lot.

I like the honesty of Faber’s writing; the sympathetic, warm, honesty of it. The introduction of Mango, talks about her being busy because “being busy was important, living in a very busy city, full of other busy people being good at things / Because otherwise Mango might have been a little bit lonely”. Listen to that. Say it out loud. Books live in the mind but they also live in the voice, in that little stuttering sliding truth at the end of that quote. Truth says itself, and oh Faber gets that. She also gets the rich delicious humour at the heart of any friendship between a girl and a tapir: “Mango and Bambang hid, not terribly successfully, behind a lamppost”

The dialogue between text and image is wonderful; exuberant in some points, where Mango barks orders at the frenetic cityscape, and poignant at others, intensely so, when Mango stands in spotlighted isolation and the words are almost pushed off page because there isn’t enough space for them: “She looked / smaller than / usual on / her own / under the / lights.” It’s small stuff, but God, it’s clever.

I suspect I’m burbling. I would burble more if I gave you this review in person. If I did, I’d pull your attention to the moment where Bambang wears Mango’s spare swimming hut and show you potentially the most beautiful and loving sketch of a proud, slightly self-conscious but very much loving his life, tapir. Possibly the only example of such in existence, but when it’s this good, why seek for competition?

I’ve never been the timeliest of book bloggers. I heard about Mango and Bambang a long time ago, and I loved it then, and I think I might marry it now.

This book is good. So, so, utterly perfectly so. It’s golden.

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8 ways to handle difficult books

I’ve been thinking about difficult books, recently, about pieces of children’s literature that are stark and unflinching or those that present difficult and controversial narratives. I am passionate about books being available to readers, always, but then there are moments when there are books that challenge that stance for me. I am honest about that, here, because I think that’s a vital thing to have. I am passionate, madly, about these pieces of literature but sometimes I struggle with that they are. And I need to understand that because I need to understand how I live with these books in the world.

I suspect that might be a commonplace thing; that urge to passionately defend, advocate and promote literature and yet, sometimes, realising that you’re standing on ice so thin that you can see the shadows underneath and the fin-tipped doubts that you have about a book are circling, ready to break through.

So here’s my way to handle that.

  1. Read the book.
  2. Seriously, read the book. I’m very upfront about this. Make time in your life to read that book that makes you wary or unsure abut it. Covers and blurbs and reviews are coded with meaning and ideologies, whether implicit or explicit, consciously constructed or otherwise, and you will never know what that book means until you read it. And until you know what that book means, what it says to you, you can’t even begin to understand what it may say to others.
  3. That may in the previous paragraph. Think about that. No book says the exact same thing to every reader. Not possible. If I were to say to you ‘cat’, you’ll think of a cat that’s unique to you. Maybe the one that’s curling around your feet right now, or sitting on the laptop and ‘helping’ you to read this post. So. Books say different things to everyone. That difference may have some commonalities, but it will be different in its nuances so be wary of predicting a general response to a book. Be wary of predicting a general blanket response to a book.
  4. So now you’ve read the book, and began to understand what your response is, here’s the part where you try and figure out why you’ve responded to it in this manner. Reflect. Be honest and true to yourself. I have difficulties with books about certain subjects. I recognise that, and when I read books about those subjects, I read them with that awareness in mind. Not everyone has the same difficulties that I do. There’s that generalisation again. Stick with that. Remember that, if you don’t remember anything else. Don’t generalise. It’s hard, I know, but try. You’re in a position of power with these books ; don’t abuse that.
  5. You’ve read the book and examined your response to it and understood that and maybe you’re still finding it problematic? Fine. Genuinely. That’s fine, and not in that passive-aggressive sense of fiiiine. I will always fight for the right to have opinions and to allow and enable those opinions. But here’s the part where you frame that opinion within yourself. Here’s the part where you look at the books that go out of your library and maybe find out that the difficult book has immense usage stats. Here’s the part where you go online and find out that it’s award winning, and teens are talking about it. Here’s the part where you recognise it’s difficult but you put it on your shelves because it’s wanted there.
  6. A final note on the difficult, truly difficult books. The ones where bad things happen, or history is presented in a way that is complex to mediate in a contemporary event. The ones where things happen that should not happen. Here’s the part where you trust yourself and your knowledge of your children, your customers, your publishers. You’re not reacting on your own part, here, you’re playing devils advocate. You’re going through the book on a case by case basis and understanding what it might say to the world. You’re researching the book in question. Checking its Goodread reviews. Doing a Twitter search on it. Maybe reading up on it in blogs. And then, you decide what to do with it, because you can justify every single step of your decision at this point. Maybe you don’t buy it after all. Maybe you put it out but keep an eye on the stats. Maybe you add it to stock but talk about its complicated and problematic representations. Maybe you talk about it, but you don’t hold it. A thousand different ways to mediate the book and to understand the meanings of that mediation.
  7. Don’t ban. Never ban. Mediate and manage and enable. Don’t ban. Ever. Please.
  8. Read. The. Book.

‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge has won the Costa Prize

A quick note this morning to celebrate the landmark achievement of Frances Hardinge last night. Her wonderful, wicked, complex young adult novel The Lie Tree won the Costa Prize. The whole damn thing. All of it.

If I could insert an emoticon or some sort of wizardry here to express how I feel about that, I would. Suffice to say, I’m happy. Extremely. I loved this book when I read it. It’s just great. Sometimes ‘just’ feels a little belittling to a book, but I don’t think it is here. The Lie Tree is so fully definitive in its jagged, lyrical, state that it is just a hell of a book. It is justly, just great. A book. A fierce, fierce, wonderful book.

And if that doesn’t convince you, here’s a second fact : The Lie Tree is the second children’s book to win the prize in thirty years. The first is The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman. Not a bad book to be shelved with. Not a bad book at all.

Break the walls down Frances, break them down.


Vegetarians / vegetarianism in children’s fiction

Last night I was having a chat with a colleague about representations of vegetarianism and vegetarians in fiction. To my shame, I couldn’t think of many potent examples in children’s literature of this. My instincts went to somebody like Richard Adams and Plague Dogs / Watership Down (which I have just reread btw, and am a bit entranced by how thickly layered and robust and dreamlike a story it is) and George Orwell and Animal Farm, but that was about it. So. I threw the question out on Twitter….and collated the responses below.

Thanks so much if you helped! More suggestions welcome!

  • Eustace Scrubb’s family from the Chronicles of Narnia, and Annie Whitman’s stepsister from the SVH books (Thanks @actuallyaisha)
  • Suzy Austin in Meet the Austins (Thanks @conmartin)
  • Possibly Emerence’s parents from the Chalet School series (thanks @lavender_75)
  • Nanny Fox by Georgie Adams (Thanks @flissjohnston)
  • The parents in Groosham Grange by Anthony Horowitz (Thanks @thehiorns and 8yr old)
  • Olga da Polga (thanks @thornflowers)
  • Willow Chance in Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (thanks @lauramainellen)
  • Possibly Caddy in Caddy’s World / Weetzie Bat (thanks @effjayem)
  • Winni Allfours by Babette Cole (thanks @suzannebarton0)
  • Vlad the Drac by Anne Jungman (thanks @tamsincooke1)
  • Draculaura in the Monster High books (thanks @lbkidsuk)
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (thanks @fionanoblebooks)
  • Mia from the Princess diaries books by Meg Cabot (thanks @conmartin)
  • Scarlet McCall in The Scarlet Files : Cat Burglar (thanks @tamsincooke1)
  • Herb the Vegetarian Dragon by Jules Bass (thanks @damyantipatel)
  • Vera the vegetarian vampire in Vanishing Trick by Ros Asquith (thanks @rosasquith)
  • T-Veg : The Tale of the Carrot Crunching Dinosaur by Smriti Prasadam – Halls (thanks @potternicky)
  • Medwyn from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series (Thanks @konallis)
  • Gemma from Cowgirl by GR Gemin (thanks @konallis)
  • Tyrannosaurus Drip by Julia Donaldson (thanks @mrsdebspatters)
  • Plague 99 by Jean Ure (thanks @huskyteer)
  • And finally, thanks @272BookFaith for the excellent suggestion below :)

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A Song for Ella Grey : David Almond

A Song for Ella GreyA Song for Ella Grey by David Almond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think sometimes that if I were asked to direct somebody to one author in all of British children’s literature, right here, right now, then that author would be David Almond. Sometimes, yes, the shifts of the question and of the person asking and of their purpose in asking would change my response, but unerringly I come back to David Almond. Often, always. His books are anchors and I cleave to them, hand-fast for life.

I have written about David Almond before; rapturously so. A Song For Ella Grey will be no change from that rule for this book is witchcraft and Almond is a spell-caster.

I’m not even sure where to begin and I know that’s a good sign; when books make me dance around them in a feverish confusion of needing to talk, and not being able to describe how or where or what even the smallest fragment of the story is because – I forget myself. I lose myself, because this book is sensation and emotion and burning, fierce, lyrical love.

There, perhaps, I have it. A Song For Ella Grey centres on love; a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, but one that is locked to the landscape of north east England; the beaches of Bamburgh and the Ouseburn Valley. A book that is so fiercely of its place and revels in that place; read Ella Grey and then read The Kingdom by the Sea and you have an introduction to that beautiful, stark landscape that is not easily bettered in literary terms. I research these books, tied so defiantly to place and to path and to sand and stone, and I love them, and Ella Grey is so musical and so beautiful and so wild with its language, that I am incoherent and you should read this for this is a story so very richly and tenderly and angrily and perfectly told.

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