Just a quick note to say that I’m posting stuff that relates specifically to my PhD research over here now, as opposed to doubling up content here. Go and have a look (take a look? come and have a look? Grammar is hard…) if literary tourism and children’s literature is your bag :) Thanks!

The Susannah Adventure : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

I’d never heard of this book.

Isn’t that awful? I’d never heard of it. And so, when I came across it at a book fair, I bought it and reader, I read it.

It’s not the best of Brent-Dyer’s efforts. I feel that’s something we need to make clear almost immediately. It’s part of the Chudleigh Hold series (apparently? Gosh, I am immensely blank on this book…) and features some individuals who posses some of the best names in all of Brent-Dyer. Seriously. Anstace Roseveare. Humphrey Anthony. Tom Vinton. Mr Jago Halcrow. Kennetha Mackenzie. Kevin Mackenzie.  Jabez Vinton. It’s rare that Brent-Dyer goes full Angela Brazil with her names, but when she does, she goes there with gusto.

So, our improbably named crew of Anstace and Humphrey are aboard the Susannah (and that’s the name of the boat – God, this book is killing me) and one night, Kevin and Kennetha (shortened to Kennie) climb aboard. They are orphans, escaping from the dubious care of Mr Jago Halcrow. Humphrey and Anstace try to help them out – but then adventures ensue. And there’s some dude with a barge, some military chaps, and some random other Evil Bloke pops up. I’m exhausted.

Okay. What else? Well, this is set during wartime, so there’s a lot of subtle references to The Enemy and The Bad Things They Will Do If They Find Out This Secret Which Handily Is Now Known By All The Kids. It’s really a book painted in quite broad brush strokes which surprises me considering that it comes out in 1953, alongside Bride Leads the Chalet School and Changes for the Chalet School. Whilst Brent-Dyer certainly wasn’t at the heights of her powers, she certainly wasn’t at the depths of Althea Joins The Chalet School.

I suspect some of this is due to her being somewhat at sea with the subject (no pun intended). She very rarely touched the out and out thriller and her strengths were, as ever and always, to be found in how she wrote people and girls and the life they lived together. Those moments where she writes people are perfect. Those moments when she tries something like, oh, Redheads, are moments to be forgiven. And even though I think that The Susannah Adventure is not her best effort (really, it’s not her best, let me emphasise that a little bit more), there are moments in this book which do still sing. Anstace cooking fat spitting sausages and mash on the beach. Humphrey doing The Right Thing. The shy and nervy Highlanders. The Susannah Adventure has enough of those moments for me to forgive it so much else.

An A-Z of Picture Book Terminology

I’ve been thinking about these posts from Sarah McIntyre and how I work with picture books.

I could talk, quite happily about picture books all day and I’m very conscious that when I start going on about recto and verso and page turns and white space that it’s a language quite foreign to many. So, in an effort to address that – here we are. I’ve had a go at putting down an A-Z of picture book terminology. It’s not exhaustive, nor is it perfect, but it is a reflection of all the things I think about when I’m looking at picture books. It is, perhaps, a conversation starter. Please feel free to adapt and utilise if you think it’s of use for yourself and your purposes (ps – I’d be v interested to hear if you do use it!).

Have a look at the #picturesmeanbusiness tag on Twitter for more about this campaign.

Politics / Politicians in Young Adult Literature

Just a quick news in brief sort of article for today, but last night I was wondering a bit about politics and politicians in young adult literature so I asked for some suggestions of titles on Twitter. Here’s the storify of what I was recommended. I hope it proves of interest ! :-)

Five Children on the Western Front : Kate Saunders

Five Children on the Western FrontFive Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember being quite concerned when this was first announced. I think it was the title, mainly, which worried me. It felt so bald somehow; this juxtaposition of E Nesbit’s glorious (and eternal) work against the awful bluntness of World War One. And it felt bad too, because war narratives are a very specific sort of thing and when they are applied to a book you know and love, then it is difficult to come to terms with.

You don’t want the people you love to suffer, whether it’s fictional or real. You just don’t. And the thought of that, the mere thought of it, is difficult and hard to bear.

We are human. We find ourselves in others. We reflect ourselves, our souls, our wholes, out to the world and what we get back, makes us. We are made by friends and family and the knowledge that somewhere out there sleeps a Psammead, or that there’s a wardrobe which leads to Narnia. You know that. You made it happen. You read the book and so you’re part of this life, this other world, and it is part of you. Reading works both ways. Always has. Always will. You give yourself to the book and you get something back.

But here’s the awful thing. When you read, you’re culpable, in a way, for what happens. Would it have happened if you hadn’t read the book? No. Of course it wouldn’t. It’s not real. You didn’t make it happen. But what if you did? What if it’s you that pulls these characters through story and through sadness and through pain?

Five Children on the Western Front is a book that is very quietly perfect. It is subtle and shadowy and sharp, too, when it needs to be. There are moments that are heartbreaking in it. Gasping, gutwrenchingly heartbreaking. I hated this book for a while for that and then I loved it and then I hated it again.

Understand, though, what I mean by hate. Stay with me for a while.

The Psammead is back with the Pemberton family, but things are different now. The children are grown up. Life is being lived. The War is looming and it can’t be escaped. Cyril is off to fight. Robert won’t be far behind and Anthea does her part as well. The care of the Psammead is left to the youngest, the Lamb and the new arrival to the family – Edie. It is up to them, and the others when they can be around, to help the Psammead discover what’s happened to him.

I read it in a night. I cried. I cried at this awful, perfect, graceful book and what it has done to me and the story it has told. I hate it. I love it.

It is unmissable.

Oh how it has unmade me.

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The Whitby Witches : Robin Jarvis

The Whitby Witches (The Whitby Witches, #1)The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve written about The Whitby Witches before but never quite in the guise of a formal review. Upon the decision that I wanted to use this book in my PhD (and how, oh how could I not…), I knew it was time to fix that. And so: a review. But how to review this dark and powerful and wildly fantastic book, oh where to begin with such a book that is the first in a trilogy but not, somehow. The Whitby Witches is of Whitby and responsive to Whitby and in dialogue with the story of Whitby and all of the stories of Whitby. It’s a beginning, yes, to this story, but also a response to Dracula and to the Hand of Glory and the Barghest and to the sea and to the storied history of Whitby itself.

So. A beginning. Jennet and Ben, orphans, are off to Whitby. They have been fostered by Alice Boston (Aunt Alice), a redoubtable woman of redoubtable talents. She is 92 years old, insists on climibg the 199 steps before breakfast every day and is holding a secret of her own. But then again, so is Ben. And so is Whitby.

But the thing about secrets is that they insist on being discovered and so, eventually, awfully, things begin to occur in the Whitby. Events spiral. People die. Darkness rises. Aunt Alice, the children and their friends, must make a stand against the darkest of evils.

This is such a book. I remember the first time I read it, growing up in the North Yorkshire Moors, and I was almost made breathless by this story. Jarvis’ style is so honestly readable; he faces the darkness and he brings to it such glorious moments of people and heart and bravery, that this book deserves to be at the forefront of our consideration of British children’s literature. I devour this book. Every time.

For sometimes I think this series is forgotten and that is not right. It is a matter-of-fact story about magic and power and friendship and hope and being very, very brave. It is a story about people. And magic. And fear.

And it is very, very good.

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