Nara and the Island : Dan Ungureanu

Nara and the IslandNara and the Island by Dan Ungureanu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Think of a bright blue sky. Think of a blue that’s so dense you could almost walk on it. Think of a sky that’s so full of this thick, dense blue that there’s no clouds, nothing else but this blue. Think of a sky that’s so blue that it almost scalds your eyes; an August blue, a seaside blue, a picnic in the park blue.

Now think of a different sort of blue. Think of this blue in a sky that’s whipped with wind and mist. Maybe this is a winter blue, thin and tense, as though it knows it shouldn’t be there at all. Maybe you can’t even think of this blue sky for long without it reverting to grey and black clouds, thick with rain and snow. Think of this blue, this mist-soaked blue, this almost gone blue.

That’s saturation. Colours of the same spectrum and yet, so different in density that they’re saying totally different things. The red of a Harry Potter spine, the red of a blush. The thickness of colour. The language of colour, really, is what I’m inching towards. The semiotics of shade.

FILE0118.JPGColour says a lot. More, sometimes, than anything else on the page. It can be used as a focal point, a hey, look-here vibrant tint of blue against a white expanse, or it can obliterate the detail that shouldn’t be seen. Make you blind, make you see. Make you read a story much more than that which the words hint at. And that’s the thing about picture books, that’s what they should do. They’re a dance between text and image, a dance that’s performed in the arena of the page and book, a pas de deux of story.

And sometimes that dance is done well, sometimes it’s an arabesque of such perfection that you could just sit and watch it a thousand times. Sometimes it’s not, and the fouette that you want from the book, the fouette that you know it can give, is nothing but an awkward limp across a few tense and uncomfortable pages.

Nara and the Island by Dan Ungureanu is an arabesque. It’s an arabesque precisely because of his approach to colour and the lyrical way in which its used. This fableistic, quiet tale is set on one island with Nara and her father, and one day they set out to “the other island”. Dad’s rationale for this is clear: their boat is now fixed, and fixed boats call for adventure. They are going to find “the big fish” and whilst he rows around the other island, Nara is allowed to explore the shore. In doing so, she comes across the island’s greatest secret, namely Aran – a friend of her own age. The final scene sees the two of them hand in hand sharing Aran’s favourite place in the island.FILE0119.JPG

I talk about colour with this book because it’s what struck me the most about it; big pale washes, almost old-fashioned in tone, but rather deeply evocative and noteably handled. This is dream-colour; hazy-edged frames, white space, shadows and moments that echo back to that great wilderness explored in Where the Wild Things Are. And I loved it.

It’s an unfinished story, open-ended, vividly romantic, and again it made me think of fables and of parables, because we don’t know what happens. We have story that can be completed in a thousand ways or, not completed at all, and it’s only the little understated note in the endpapers that gives a hint of what might happen. Give me clever endpapers that use their space, that pull their weight, and I am happy, I truly am.

A book of rhythms, of echoes; of names that pattern each other, Aran and Nara, and the urge to find something that is your own. The commonalities of difference. Nara’s island is “a little small and quiet, where it’s hard to find a hideaway” whilst Aran’s is “noisy and wild, he’s always trying to find a bit that’s just his.” There’s something deliciously empathetic underpinning this book, a sense of togetheness despite difference, and again, I come back to that use of colour, that underpinning thread throughout Nara and The Island. Because that’s the other thing about saturation and tone and colour. It brings things together. It’s a story note that sounds even when we don’t want to hear it, even when we don’t know it’s there.

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Anger in children’s / young adult literature : a reading list

I’ve been collating a new reading list of titles with the help of innumerable lovely people on Twitter. This reading list covers anger in children’s and young adult literature with a specific focus on the angry girl character. The feminine angry. That which we are so often uncomfortable with and yet, is there. From Mary Lennox through to Darrell Rivers, the angry heroine is so often subjugated and denied her rightful space to be angry. To express emotion. To confront the challenges of life.

As ever with reading lists of this nature, a brief caveat is required. Read the text before you recommend it or use it with the children you work with or know. Understand your reaction to it.

Thank you so much if you’re somebody who has suggested a title for this list. Hit me up with more recommendations if you have them (Title / Author / Goodreads link). If you’d like to put your recommendation directly into the list (it should be crowd-editable) feel free. I want this list to grow…


Shelf Help : Reading Well and The Reading Agency

Have you heard of the books on prescription service? The deliciously acronymed (and perhaps only acronymed inside my head thusly) BOPs are a great staple of the public library service in how they allow and enable people to discover literature that may prove of assistance at certain times in their lives.

Reading_Well_Library_Slide.gifThe particular scheme I want to draw your attention to is the Reading Well scheme from the Reading Agency. It’s a relatively new scheme as far as I know, and the supporting material tells me that it’s being launched in 90% of English library authorities.

I’ve been really impressed with this scheme. The books that have been chosen for it are good.  Genuinely so. It’s a really nice mixture between non-fiction and fiction, and some of the fiction titles are classy beasts. There’s House of Windows by Alexia Casale, and Kite Spirit by Sita Brahmachari, alongside things like Everyday by David Leviathan and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. You can read the full list of titles here and it’s well worth a browse.

I highlight this scheme both for the quality of the titles involved, but also for the vital necessity of such a scheme. I’ve often thought that the BOPs should have a teenage / children’s element, and I’m so pleased that that’s been recognised and done in such a good manner. One of the key things that’s made me happy is that the Reading Agency have actually involved young people in the decision making process. These aren’t books that have just been thrust didactically into the ether, and I welcome that immensely. (Give me good methodologies or give me a problematic end result, really!)

Bravo to everyone who is participating in this scheme. This is vital and important work, and it is well done.





The Pirates of Pangaea : Daniel Hartwell & Neill Cameron

The Pirates of Pangaea: Book 1 (The Phoenix Presents)The Pirates of Pangaea: Book 1 by Dan Hartwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Like H Rider Haggard. But with dinosaurs.”

That was how I described this dynamic and rather wonderful comic from the team of Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron; the Pirates of Pangaea gives us boy’s own adventures, cut from the pages of those delicious 1950s stories of derring do, mixes it up with a bit of H Rider Haggard, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and if that weren’t enough, there’s also dinosaurs.

I really liked this. I talk a lot in my reviews about books knowing the space within which they work and owning that space. Children’s literature, comics, young adult literature, everything I review, they all talk to each other. They all exist as part of this great dynamic system of expression; a stone thrown into the pond and the ripples rolling out a thousand fold. And that’s one aspect of what I mean when I talk about space; the dialogues between texts. The way one text finds an echo in another; the way one novel talks to that and vice-versa.

Another aspect of space, though,is the idea of the book itself. The page edge. The limit of the bookish space. The part where the book ends, practically. The page corner. The front cover. The part where the world stops being book and starts being something else. The sofa. The table. The floor. (Get your books up off the floor, please, thanks)

This part of space is particularly pertinent for picture books and comics because they can push all the way up to that edge. A novel will always have white space around the text due to typsetting, but visual media? It can push that edge. It can spill story all the way out and into the world, and this is where The Pirates of Pangaea shines. It’s a big book. It’s a big and storied and strong book; the story doesn’t just live within its pages, it’s everywhere. The visual coding of this book is so strong. I believed it. Boats ride on the back of dinosaurs, land-borne craft over the sea of green, people ride dinosaurs and I believed it. All of it.

It’s all true.

I spoke at the start of this review about the authorly echoes The Pirates of Pangaea stirred up in me; it’s a comic of finding yourself in a world where you have to, because there’s nobody else to do it for you. Sophie, one of the lead characters, is cut from a very distinct cloth; she’s brave, occasionally gobby, quick-witted and I rather love her.

There’s another fine detail of The Pirates of Pangaea that I want to highlight, as it speaks again to me of that great width of this comic, the way it exists in a space so much larger than it may seem to initially inhabit, and that detail comes at the little note at the start of each chapter. Each chapter’s introduced with a double sided page, coloured in that evocative note of antique and yellowing parchment, with a map on one side and a dinosaur on the other side. Each side is noted in pencil with little notes which speak of lived experience. This is clever, clever work; it’s not letting any part of the book-space go to waste, and it’s making every inch of it work for your narrative.

This is good, good stuff.

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The books I don’t review

Oh, that title makes me think of some sort of bookish elephant graveyard! Rest assured, that’s not my intention; this post is to talk about all the books I don’t review. I read a lot of books (a lot, seriously, it’s like my superpower) and I don’t even begin to review half of them. A handful, really, and I thought it would be interesting to share a few of the reasons why the ones that Don’t Get Reviewed, um, don’t get reviewed. I am a horrible reader. Consider these my confessions!

  • Really horrible front cover. I thought I could get past it. I couldn’t.
  • You know that habit of making the first letter fancy and a different font in a paragraph? Like This? That.
  • That thing where people don’t use speechmarks and instead use – or nothing. I can’t deal.
  • A stain on one page. A mysterious, please GOD, don’t make me talk about it any more stain.
  • Not being able to say much about it. “This book is good” doesn’t make a review.
  • Being able to say too much about it. “This book is everything that’s wrong with the world” makes the review too much.
  • Books represented by my agent or her agency. A conflict of interests and super weird for me to review them from a critical place.BUT. I will talk about them on Twitter because it is nice to talk about nice books.
  • Oh my god, I stopped one recently because it had horrible feeling pages. Forgive me!
  • Boring book. It took about 300 pages to get anywhere and by 301, I’d had enough. Other things to do, people to see.
  • It dealt with an important issue BUT didn’t deal with it in a way that felt I could use it and talk about it. A difficult one, but any inkling of doubt is something that I take very seriously. Gatekeeper, I know, and that’s something I’ll talk about at a later date.
  • It had an awful pun in.
  • I couldn’t add anything to the critical discourse around it.
  • Forced rhyme. The sort of rhyme that works with a very particular type of English and not, quite, with everything.
  • Bad binding. Forgive me!


Next time : a list of the reasons I do review a book. It is a lot less embarrassing:)



The School in the Forest : Angela Brazil

The School in the ForestThe School in the Forest by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What! Go to school! To boarding-school! I won’t I tell you I won’t!”

So begins The School in The Forest and the story of fourteen year old Jean Langton, a spoilt heiress who is both inevitably orphaned and inevitably romantic. Her life in the remote and isolated Craigness Tower is to come to an end and she is to be sent to boarding school. Prodigously, as “south country air doesn’t suit” Jean, a respectable school has evacuated to the locale and thus she is to be sent there. St Hilda’s is a typical school as far as Brazil is concerned; it is progressive with a naturalistic pedagogy (can you tell I am writing an essay about this book as well as this review?) and has relocated itself to the romantic surroundings of Wildeswood Hall.

I always overuse the word romantic when I talk about Angela Brazil because her books are so resolutely focused upon casting the everyday outside and becoming embroiled in a saga of dancing through the trees and singing songs around a campfire. Even Brent-Dyer, my great literary love, held back from the wholesale passions of Angela Brazil and her obsession with the outdoors world. And I think it’s the way that Brazil approaches the outdoors and forces her girls out there to engage in the world that gives her work a particular and peculiar force, even now, a million miles away. Jean is a musical girl (how rare for the new girl to have a talent! *side-eyes camera) and yet, she’s irrevocably tied to landscape. Her family history, her escapades, her Christmas with real and true and proper friends; all of it steps outside of the school and into the wide world.

Of course, having said that, as ever with Angela Brazil there’s a deeply contrived subplot. And what is a school story without a contrived subplot? It is a quirk of genre and one that is inescapable. This subplot involves gypsies and a mysterious child. It’s a subplot which doesn’t translate particularly well to contemporary reads. As ever, judge the text by the standards of the age and make allowances for those standards, however they may be.

For an author who cut her teeth on school stories, and who indeed must take credit for making the contemporary school story what it is, The School In The Forest isn’t really a book about schools at all. It’s a book about girlhood; about learning to live in a community and to live with yourself. I rather love it. But, then again, I think that I will always love Angela Brazil for a myriad of reasons, and not only for the way I learn a thousand new synonyms for ‘said’* every time I read her work. Brazil was epochal. Still is, really.

(page 55: ‘asked’ / ‘mocked’ / ‘laughed’ / ‘nodded’ / ‘sniggered’ / ‘decided’.
I love these books)

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The drum

I am good in libraries, in bookish spaces. I understand how they work and I’m comfortable in them. It’s a skill honed over many, many years of being bookish. A commitment to the spine, to the folded edge.

I am equally conscious that those spaces that I inhabit are, quite often, full of privilege. A library can be an intimidating space. It should never be, and we should stand against such demarcation of public spaces and fight against the barriers established therein. But it can be intimidating.

Every new is new, until it’s old. Every fear is fear until it’s known.

I’m a writer, a critic, a student, and yet I find myself defending that too much in some spheres. I research children’s literature. I find it an important worthy topic. I find it fun, relevant. Exciting. And yet: pauses.

Somebody told me the other day that there are only two things which never let you down: music and books.

I think they’re right, but I think that statement needs something else adding onto it. Music, and books, and story. That last word, that great intangible edge that defines our lives. That we perform, every day, with ever step we take and whether we choose to go to Asda or Tesco, the bus or the train.

Story is in everything, quite clearly. Define a story for me, quickly, loosely. Your first instinct. For me, I return to the idea of beginnings. Endings. A start, an end. Something in between. It’s a structure that was taught to me in junior school. It’s a structure that left me in tears once, in front of the class, as I wasn’t able to follow it.

Instinct. Patterns. Returning to what you know, even when it’s not comfortable. Even when it’s not right. Yours. Familiarity. A regularity of rhythm, of expectation. The prince needs to find his one true love. The evil needs defeating. We need our patterns. Our familiar spaces.

Narrative; that great drum beat. We march to it, we echo to it, we search for it. We love, lie, live to it.

I study children’s literature because it is the drum. It is the first drum, and often the loudest. The most present. The most recurrent. The story that’s passed down through the ages, from parent to child, from shelf to hand. These are the beats which define us, which make us. And when we know them, we know them intimately. Lovingly.

I had an argument about a film once. Independence Day. Aliens, explosions and Will Smith. It’s a film made by numbers, almost, if you break it down to the morphological level. The level of breath, of beat.

Doesn’t make it a bad film though.

The narrative of Independence Day is one that fills the gaps. Same with a thousand other films, novels. Story. The constancy of story, the way it fills us and edges our bricks with a neat and solid mortar. Being given the skills to recognise those narratives is a gift; and one that I live to share, every day.

Learning how to read is a superpower. Learning how to read the markers of story; the tropes, the archetypes, the figures that make the story what it is, is also a superpower. Sometimes learning to read isn’t enough. It takes you to the edges, the ring fenced space of books that are suitable for you and the great morass of those that aren’t. The tempting otherness. The wild beyond.

We look for patterns as humans; we exist for rhythm and pattern and structure.

Working with, talking about, living with children’s literature allows us to interrogate what those patterns are and to enable readers with the strength to challenge them. Us. Everything.

Defy the fears.

And change the world.