Looking After William : Eve Coy

WilliamLooking After William by Eve Coy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s very easy for me to become a little cocky when it comes to reading children’s books. I read a lot of them, and when you read a lot of anything, you become familiar to the tips and tricks that such books use. You become wise to how they do what they do, and to be frank? Sometimes you become a little bit blind. Sometimes it’s easy to read something not for what it is, but for what you think it is. It’s a trend that I’m increasingly aware of within myself and so I am thrilled and delighted by those books that challenge my preconceptions. That rear, perhaps, out of the paths that I have chosen for them and ask me to consider them anew and with fresh, eager eyes.

Looking After William is a perfect little book and I adored it. It’s told very simply, often pairing a clean sentence with a vibrant and rich double page spread, and it has this sort of timeless, rich taste to it. A lot of this is due to Coy’s quietly confident language, but also the rich, unfinished edge of her artwork. These illustrations sing with unfinished energy and movement; they’re part of the tapestry of this life, and rich with an almost infinite sense of potential. She’s not afraid of the more abstract edge either, pairing a lion tamer scene with an astronaut, and linking the two through some smart visual clues. There’s also a delightful hidden thread throughout the book, with the cat, and some thickly gorgeous endpapers.

I love books like this, because they speak. They speak out and loud and proud about what they are and this is a book about love. It’s the story of William and his Mummy; but, is in fact, told from the child’s point of view. It’s such a subtle and clever way to flip the story, and it’s one that will leave the parents nodding sympathetically at William’s exhaustion and children delighting in being in control. Books like this are good, you know? They work. They remind me what is good and right with the world.

Thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Home Fetters : Raymond Jacberns

Home FettersHome Fetters by Raymond Jacberns

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a bit of an interesting time in a bookshop recently, spotting a vast pile of those books that you just know are the sort of books that you want. Luckily enough they were also the sort of books that clearly didn’t sell that well in this bookshop, considering by how much dust were on them and the price they were, and so I scooped them up and ran away home, cackling wildly to myself.

Many of the authors in that pile were new ones to me, and my eye was drawn to Home Fetters by Raymond Jacberns as a suitable place to start. Upon hearing the name of this author, my mum turned to me and said, “That’s a pseudonym.” “Is it?” I said, “How do you know?” “I just do,” she said, and then I googled and she was right. Raymond Jacberns was the pseudonym of Georgiana Mary Isabel Ash, and my mum has psychic powers.

Home Fetters was published by the Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1904 and as such is inculcated with a very particular form of values. The moralising is sometimes quite hamfisted, and somewhat unfathomable, but then again this isn’t anything unusual in this particular type of literature. What is unusual about Home Fetters is how good it is despite its marked weaknesses. Not much happens, and that which does happen is a bit episodic, and a little bit ‘wait, why is this all ‘character x’s’ fault’, but what does happen is told in a really genuine and vivid style. Jacberns (Ash) has this great gift of vibrancy which, when it’s allowed to happen, can absolutely shine.

I suspect in a way she’s too early with her style. You can almost feel it fighting against the restrictions of the form to make itself known, and I wonder what we would have had from her if she were writing and working in the context of twenty or thirty years later. She’s a great writer; and when she can express it, this book is surprisingly good.

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The NCRCL Open Day 2018

Just a quick note to say that I will be speaking at the NCRCL Open Day 2018 (June 2nd, University of Roehampton). I know that London might not be an option for many people but if it is, and children’s books are your jam, I would urge you to come along! Studying for the MA changed my life in innumerable ways and I’d reccomend it to anybody (and I’m also happy to answer any questions about it). It’s a free event but you do need to book ahead; and do say hi if you get there!

(That was a lot of exclamation marks for one post, do forgive me… 🙂 )

Caldicott Place : Noel Streatfeild

Caldicott PlaceCaldicott Place by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes I suspect that, along with ‘Duvet Days’, there should be ‘Streatfeild Days’ where those people who feel a peculiar ache at their soul that they cannot quite identify should be allowed to take a day off to read a Streatfeild of their choice. I picked this one up from a charity shop recently, delighting in that front cover and its peculiar potent sense of time and place, and it’s a joy. It’s perhaps not her strident and raw best but when you consider what her best could be, you realise that those books which are simply ‘good’ are rather transcendent in themselves.

Tim’s family isn’t having a great time of it; his father has been hurt in a car crash, and money is proving immensely tight. Circumstances conspire to see Tim and his family relocate to the countryside with an old house and several new additions to take care of, whilst the father slowly recuperates from his injuries. It ties everything up appropriately, as stories of this nature ought to do, and there’s a few sudden moments of breathless beauty in it; particularly in the rehabilitation of Tim’s dad.

What Streatfeild manages to achieve here, and always, is this sense of the children stepping up and playing their part – in ways that, perhaps, the adult figures of the book do not realise. She had such a wonderful eye for letting children participate and own the movement of their lives that Caldicott Place sings with this sort of increasing childish strength and power and weight the more that the book develops. Streatfeild also had an eye for the adults in her books, rendering them as flawed and realistic characters full of worries and concerns of their own, whilst never, not once, allowing them to be unsympathetic. I think what I’m trying to say is that she understands people, and her books taste like buttered crumpets on a cold, sharp winter’s morning. They make everything alright again.

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Translating classic children’s books into feminist blank verse

(Honestly, I’ve never been more on brand).

I am no translator. My French is passable, in that ‘I cannot remember the precise word but can vaguely approximate the sense of what I am trying to describe to you’ sort of manner, but it’s not up to translating prose. My English, however, is and so over the past few weeks I’ve been translating a classic children’s book (which I won’t name just yet) from prose into feminist blank verse. It’s one of my more niche experiments, and yet also something that’s thrilled me deeply because it touches a lot on the things that interest me.

My MPhil thesis, for example, partially discussed the notion of the Golden Age within children’s literature, that is to say the conceit of referring to a particular time of publishing as such – and viewing all since in relation to that Golden Age. I argued for Golden Ages to run on thematic distinction as I did, and still do, view the temporally discreet idea of periodization as something inherently complex. (“I’m sorry Mr Smith, but the Golden Age finished last Sunday…”).

I looked at the school stories located within the first Golden Age, and argued for subsequent Golden Ages to run more or less contiguously. I looked at the school stories, and stories of schooling, for they are my jam, but I also thought a lot about that wider context. The idea of how the quality of children’s books is always assessed by adults, and how popular fiction rarely plays a part in such a thing. (Perhaps we can call this Blytonphobia I don’t know.)

I realised that girls and women don’t often get an easy ride within these Golden Age stories, and I started to wonder what does it mean for our discipline, our sector, to cleave back to these books as gold standard. What do these choices reveal about ourselves and our idea of childhood? How do these stories fit in the contemporary rebel girl phenomenon sweeping children’s publishing? What part do they have to play in contemporary discourse?

So that’s the what, and here’s the why; I decided to rewrite one in blank verse because it gave me the leeway to answer those questions and to redress the balance. I don’t ever argue for the suppression of books, but I do argue for the considered reading of such. The questioning of standards. Challenging the absences.

And here’s the first line:

This is the story of a girl

The Positively Last Performance : Geraldine McCaughrean

The Positively Last PerformanceThe Positively Last Performance by Geraldine McCaughrean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some authors who have this fierce richness about them when they work. They tell story; words that run together and layer something wonderfully thick and dense about you and you don’t quite know what’s happening until you finish it and realise that that was good. Geraldine McCaughrean is one of those authors and The Positively Last Performance is a classy, classic sort of tale.

The Royal Theatre at Seashaw now only plays to ghosts; the humans are long gone, and the theatre is not what it was. One day, a stubborn little girl and her parents arrive at the Royal; Gracie and her Mum and Dad are there to bring it back to its former life. Whilst Gracie makes friends with the ghosts, her parents try to restore the theatre…

Inspired by the Margate, and the theatre there, this is a book that both renders that sense of place superbly but also catches the peculiar joy and sadness of the British seaside. There’s love here, for both what was and what is, but also a recognition that these resorts face complex lives and hold complex, wonderful people. There’s a lot in this book and I don’t think it quite lets you see this until you’re well into it. You have to work past the slightly brittle opening, the defence of rhythm and chapter, until it lets you see the truth of it.

People, really, people. McCaughrean is interested in people, the shape of them and the stories of them, and what happens when they mingle and touch on lives that are not their own. As Gracie gets to know the ghosts and their stories, she learns about the black and white minstrels, mods, artists and librarians who lived and worked in Seashaw. One thing to note is that the n- word does make an appearance in the book (particularly when relating to issues of blackface) but is challenged, rebuked and analysed appropriately. It did stick out for me though, so it’s worthwhile mentioning and taking note of.

I was concerned about this getting repetitive (the rhythm of ghost – backstory – ghost – backstory) but then there’s a sudden, wrenching, movement in the middle of the book that turns all of that on its head. It’s beautifully, horribly, done and the sign of a writer who is simply just very good at what she does. I liked this a lot. I devoured it.

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Running On Empty : SE Durrant

Running on EmptyRunning on Empty by S.E. Durrant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Running On Empty: a story of family, relationships, and of knotty moments and problems that need solving but don’t have easy solutions, a story of life, really. It’s the second novel from SE Durrant (the first, A Little Bit Of Sky, I review here). She’s an interesting writer in that she kind of slides into the heart of things and does so in a very gentle, truthful and honest manner. She’s a writer with heart, and Running On Empty is full of it.

AJ, the twelve year old lead, is having a bit of a rough time. He’s worried about his parents, who suffer from learning difficulties, and he’s trying to come to terms with the death of his grandfather, and the bills are piling up and he’s convinced that social services are at the door ready to break up his family. Throw into the mix the transition to senior school, trainers that don’t fit – not great when you’re a star runner – and there’s a whole whirl of problems all vying to make themselves felt first.

Running On Empty is somewhat stiff at first, reading a little protectively and defensively, but after a while it starts to work its subtle magic. Durrant has this great gift of finding the truth of people and of letting them be what they are, whether that brave or scared or foolish or whatever. This feels like a grounded and honest book, not in the least of the representation of AJ’s relationship with his parents. Young carer’s aren’t represented that much in children’s literature, and Durrant handles this well; never sliding towards ‘I AM WRITING ABOUT A YOUNG CARER ASK ME HOW’, but rather tenderly and sensitively sharing this story with the world.

It’s really quite something to deliver two books in a row that are as quiet and calm and as carefully crafted as these. I really do look forward to seeing what comes next from Durrant.

I am grateful to the publishers for a review copy.

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