Tennis Shoes : Noel Streatfeild

Tennis Shoes (Shoes, #2)Tennis Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Streatfeild season comes when you least expect it. For me, it came earlier this week with the sight of Tennis Shoes on a library trolley, and then, as I read it and the evenings started to twist around the end of Summer and things like Yorkshire puddings and joints of beef found their way into the fridge, I realised that it was most definitely Streatfeild season and it was good. It was time for the rich books, the books of tumultous family and bright, hard-working children that don’t jib and don’t jibe but just do , yet never, somehow, irritate.

I’d never read Tennis Shoes before. It is … very …. tennisy. But! It is also rather lovely. It’s a madly readable book written in that relaxed, rich style of Streatfeild. The family is immense, close, loving, annoying, and the children are delights. There’s always a part of me that loves the complex child in these stories because they are, so often, the richest of characters. Nicky, here, is spectacularly irritating but also spectacularly brilliant. The contradiction of character. Streatfeild revels in it. There’s much here in the family and sibling dynamics that reminded me of A Vicarage Family; both books have this kind of delightful rich, direct tone about them.

The big difficulty about Tennis Shoes comes with its structure. It finishes far too soon and almost offhandedly. There’s a great, immense book here that could have been something rather brilliant, I suspect, but we only get to see a fragment of it. It’s a good fragment, and a delightful read, yet it’s a fragment shorn from something bigger. There’s more of a story, and the ending is too soon. But then, I suppose with Streatfeild, it always sort of is.

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The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo : Catherine Johnson

The Curious Tale of the Lady CarabooThe Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rich, vivid storytelling; The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo is written with such power and verve that it made me greedy. I wanted more. Much more. Johnson’s novel is based on a real tale of a girl who was not herself. She adopted personas and identities and stories, really, in order to be somebody different and to make her life a little easier. This time, the girl chooses her new life after a dark and sharply horrific event makes her want to leave the last one behind. The blink of an eye, and the girl is the Lady Caraboo, a mysterious figure from a far away land. And with this new identity comes problems of its very own….

I’ve a lot of love for Johnson’s work, though I’ve not read nearly enough. (sidebar: Brave New Girl is a gorgeously rooted story of Hackney and the Olympics and one I do recommend most heartily). The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo has been on my to read list for a while, and it doesn’t disappoint. It opens with a twisty, fragmentary, glass-sharp sequence of scenes (persevere with this opening because it pays off) before the story settles into something quite remarkable.

It’s an intensely filmic story. If ever a story begged for visual adaptation, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo does. Some of the sequences are wonderful and awful, and much of their impact comes from Johnson’s clean, genuine prose. She’s not afraid of giving the raw edge of life here, the shadow beneath the pretense, and some of the scenes are much better for it. Do note though, that there’s a scene at the start which might prove problematic for the younger scale of young adult; yet do equally note that this scene is intensely relevant for the narrative as it stands. As ever, read, and then make your call. This book is powerful and it tells a story that needs to be told.

I loved this. Johnson has this great gift of story and to be frank, one of the reasons that this is not a full five star rave is that I wanted more. Books like this make me so greedy.

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1000 points in England related to children’s books

Forgive the double posting if you subscribe to both of my blogs, but I hope this is of interest to everyone! Books, maps, and days out! (I sound very Enid Blyton at this point, but I’m going to roll with it…)

Big boots and adventures

A pithy title, I know, but you wouldn’t believe how long it took me to boil that down from something substantially longer. Anyway; today I wanted to share a sample of the project I’m trying to get funding for (and if you’d like to fund an app of this, dudes let’s talk…). One of my great personal principles about doing this research is that I make it accessible and open; I work in children’s literature, and I work to make that field open and ownable by all. I don’t work in a bubble.

So: map. Enjoy! 1021 points set in England mainly. This isn’t the limit of my data, but it’s some of it. A sample. A taster…

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Three go to the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Three Go to the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #24)Three Go to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favourite films is Stagecoach, which stars John Wayne. There’s a shot in this film (which you can see here) that makes John Wayne a star. The camera swings into him with such exuberance, and then when it meets him, it keeps going and ends up framed on that face. This is a director making a star, and it’s the first thing I thought of when I reread Three Go To The Chalet School. This is a book where several big characters debut: Mary-Lou Trelawney, Verity-Ann Carey and Clem Barras, and it’s a book which features several of the landmark incidents of the series. You know the sorts of incidents I mean; they’re the ones that somebody indirectly mentions thirty seven books later and everyone laughs, and you’ve not actually read the book that the original incident occurs in, so you’re just all well whatever …

I’m digressing. Three Go To The Chalet School’s a well told book, and it’s purposeful and direct. A lot of it takes place outside of the school and I rather love that. Much of that also speaks to the calibre of the new characters we’re about to meet; the new girl usually gets a bit of backstory, but that backstory halts when they get to school. This time it doesn’t, and the adults remain constantly present throughout. I rather love that. The more I read these books, the more I start to realise that perhaps the great longevity of them is precisely that constant adult presence. It’s in the way that we see inside the staffroom (was it just me who was fascinated with what went on in there?) and become party to adult discussions. These are school stories, yes, but there’s a whole world in there. But then, isn’t that the girls’ school story genre in a nutshell? That expression of femine power and absolute strength, wielded in a constructed and fiercely delineated space of gender parity and uniquely formed ideology?

The school is the world, always.

One other thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School is how Brent-Dyer handles Joey. Joey, at this point, had undergone something of an awkward transition. Still at school, but not. Mother, lover, schoolgirl, adult, writer. And here, Brent-Dyer sort of manages to relax with her and step away from that awkward effort to pigeonhole a character who denies such easy categorisation. Joey Maynard climbs trees and then goes inside and darns socks. She helps people through deep, lasting trauma and she plays slides on the drawing room floor. It’s rather delightful because it’s so unforced and through that lack of concern, she becomes intensely real.

I lied. There is a final, final thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School and it is a moment right at the end of the book with Clem and Tony Barrass. I won’t outline the situation, just in case you’ve not read in it, but there is a line here that makes me cry, every time. It’s a line borne out of life and living and of hurting, I think, and it reminds me how good Brent-Dyer really really could be.

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Don’t be afraid of academic children’s literature

I bought a writing magazine really. I don’t do this often, because I’m a self-funded researcher and those magazines aren’t cheap. But every now and then, I dip in and see what’s going on. One of the ones I bought recently had an article in which the author discussed an academic text from 1963 and concluded that “if you seek practical guidance in the art of novel-writing, do not go poking around the shelves of the academic library”

This saddens me, really, because one of the great principles of academia for me is that it produces work with a global remit. It unpacks texts and ideas and shares them with readers. Personally, as well, I’d go so far as to say with children’s literature that there’s somewhat of an ethical responsibility to tie your work back to the reader themselves and that to work in a bubble, devoid of this consideration, is deeply problematic.

And I get the impression of academia seeming to be a place where you “undertake so-called research [and] in order to make their work look important, they often invent their own vocabulary for some very simple concepts”. I understand how that’s possible to think that (lord, on my very bad days, I think something similar) but to apply that globally? Sweepingly? That’s intensely problematic.

So here’s the thing. Research, even by those fabulous professorial types you see at some universities, is being done within a global context. It is being done within the worlds you live in every day.

Some of the best books I know about writing and children’s literature are done by academics (“Some of my best friends are academics…”). Children’s literature lives in a space between people, between readers, and has to reach in a thousand different places all at the same time. And the more you understand that, the better a writer you’ll be. Fact. Write your books. Send me a pitch to review if you like. But know your field. The more you read, the better you’ll be. As writers, readers, people, we thrive on voice. Interaction with different, new perspectives. And to deny that is to deny a sense of betterment. Don’t ever be afraid of challenging yourself, of reading something dangerous or unwieldy, or ‘beyond your capabilities’. Don’t ever be afraid of reading.

And if you do head towards that academic library, here’s five titles you might want to take a look at…

Hilda and the Stone Forest : Luke Pearson

Hilda and the Stone ForestHilda and the Stone Forest by Luke Pearson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dynamism. Dynamics. They’re abstract concepts and yet, when I come to Hilda and the Stone Forest, they’re incredibly relevant. This latest episode in the rather lovely Hilda series is a book that thrives on movement and dynamic, swift lines and panels. There’s a sense of irresistible pace around it; this book is going places, and Hilda is so delightfully determined and wonderful that you can’t help but go along for the ride. Pearson’s book is good, wildly distinct stuff and it reminds me that I haven’t read enough Hilda.

But back to that idea of dynamics. It’s quite easy for a lot of readers to enter a phase of being intimidated and thus withdraw from books. Big books. Tightly worded books. Worthy books. Old people books. Children’s literature is a wonderful space to navigate but it’s also incredibly complicated to navigate. Hang around in a bookshop sometime or a library and watch the amount of children who choose without the help of a parent or guardian. A lot of that is clearly understandable and welcome from a host of perspectives, but what it does is change the nature of literacy into something that is shared. The child becomes part of a pact of reading with the adult and the text, and sometimes one of those elements will give and the walls will come crashing down. I can’t tell you anything more heartbreaking than a child telling me that they are a bad reader.

Books that use pace effectively address this. Books that use movement, and space, and time so very well are to be treasured. Hilda and The Stone Forest is a book that is full of direction. The edges, in particular, are perfect. Sometimes an image goes all the way to the page edge, providing a link between that page and the next, whilst another page will be constructed of a series of panels, all of which are reaching forward in the book. Structure. Pace. Movement. This is a story of adventure and being brave (and, sidebar, it involves one of the best mother I’ve seen for a while), and I loved it. Pearson’s work wants to be read, and it wants you to come along with it for the ride. This is generous, exuberant, lovely work – and the ending is perfect.

My thanks to Flying Eye Books for the review copy.

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