Children’s Literature : A bit of a quick media round up

It’s been an interesting few weeks in the land of children’s literature. I’m so very conscious of a tendency to complain at the paucity of coverage, so I think it’s only right to acknowledge those moments where children’s literature has sort of been sneaking into a lot of things I’ve watched and read. Which is nice. It’s also intriguing to look at those representations of a subject I love greatly because perspectives from another point of view are always welcome (and I will fight for the death for that difference of opinion to exist and continue to exist)

I’m enjoying Clive James’ columns in the Guardian for their sneak mentions of relevant titles. The Apprentice, that bastion of nuanced business skills, recently devoted an entire episode to the making and selling of a picture book. Mog (yes, that Mog) is the star of Sainsbury’s Christmas TV advert – do play spot the beloved author cameo with that video. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman is to become a “long-form” BBC series. The Willoughby’s by Lois Lowry has had animated film rights bought.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and fly my Miffy emblazoned flag on top of the barricades.

Shackleton’s Journey : William Grill

Shackleton's JourneyShackleton’s Journey by William Grill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is craft, this book.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Grill’s masterpiece; whether to talk about the palette of clear and clean colours, or his use of space on the page and that conscious decision to let the visuals work for his story to their utmost, or the vivid little marks of humanity dotted in each scene – the men dotted across the white expanse of the page, or huddled together for warmth under the curve of a broken up boat held together by oil paints.

Perhaps it’s best to start with the facts: Shackleton’s Journey details one of the expeditions of Ernest Shackleton to the Arctic. Grill’s love and knowledge of his topic shines in his awareness of the detail and the human nuances he gives every illustration. The crew of the expedition range one page, looking out at us, with captions ranging from Able Seaman through to Stowaway. (A quick sidebar: more stories on stowaways please, I am intrigued so much by them).

Grill follows this journey from start to end and details every step of it with such graceful and poetic illustrations, that this book starts to ache with perfection. I hope that Shackleton’s Journey endures for a long while and becomes considered as a classic alongside some of the great canonical titles of children’s literature. It’s already stating its case for classic status with ease; spreads of the ice-floe breaking up swallow the page with their magnitude, dwarfing the expedition with their immense, jaw-dropping scale, whilst other spreads speak of a warmth and humour that pays tribute to the bravery of these men. This in particular is a vital touch. (Google: Frank Hurley and Endurance to see some of the photographs from the expedition – they’re almost unreal).

Shackleton’s Journey is perfect, really, and it is one of those books that feels a little bit like a landmark point for the sector. I am in love.

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Remix : Non Pratt

RemixRemix by Non Pratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve no inclination to go to a music festival. I’ve never had an inclination to go to a music festival. I’ve gone to gigs of course, ranging from ceilidhs through to Wembley but the idea of a festival and me just doesn’t click. At all.

But Pratt’s second novel, the vivid and intense Remix has made me think twice about that.

I had a lot of time for Trouble, Pratt’s debut novel, and as such came to Remix with some excitement. I like how Pratt writes; I like her honesty, her sympathy and that vivid, rich empathy she has for her characters – flawed, beautiful, real. Remix proves that Pratt gets the complexities of teenage life; those relationships brittle and fluid, sharp and clean, contradictions, all, butting up against each other and reshaping themselves with every word spoken and every look given and missed.

It is a teenage world madly removed from the one I experienced or knew but that doesn’t make it untrue or inaccurate. In the world of Remix, that heightened feverish music high, it is so true that it aches. For the period of the weekend that the novel’s set, everything that happens happens within the bubble of Remix. The world lives within the festival. It burns. People make decisions, wise or otherwise, and they are decisions that matter within those moments. In a way, they’re the only decisions that could have been made and it’s right to allow them to happen. I admire Pratt’s writing in how it gives space and truth to this world whilst similarly recognising the unreality of it. The way that the events of the weekend will have to be confronted. The way that the future will have to be faced. Sometime. Soon. But not today. Right now, it’s about the moment, and that’s where Remix shines. That vivid, bullheaded, beautiful, fleeting, perfect moment.

It is a good book.

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A dog so small : Philippa Pearce

A Dog So SmallA Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A slim, tight story that gives so much more than it suggests, A Dog So Small always feels rather Tardis like to me. I have written before on the thick, luscious stylistics of Pearce’s writing; the summer heat of Minnow on The Say and the charming, charming grace of her style is something that I will always come to. She is one of those writers who is both vividly British to me and deeply evocative in how she captures that endless space of potential that is the Summer holidays in the countryside. (I return, endlessly, to Summer when I think of Pearce, and I think of days that do not end with darkness, and light that beckons at the window and promises of adventure).

A Dog So Small is a dance between London and Cambridge; the story of a boy who quite simply wants a dog. He is desperate for a dog, in that way that we all have been desperate for something at some point in our lives, and he does, eventually, acquire a dog. It is a dog of imagination; something he sees in his mind, something – someone – that he makes happen and live; and this is both good and bad, really, in equal measure. Good, because it fills that desperate ache inside of him but bad, too, because of how it affects him. Sometimes the imaginary world is comfier, safer, than the real.

Dogs. Longing. Hope. Heartbreak. Family. And wickedly beautiful asides that capture character in mere seconds: “Ben was outpaced by a man in a bowler hat and dark suit, carrying a briefcase. He had walked from Tooting and was going to his office in the City, where he liked to be at his desk by half past eight in the morning. He did this every morning – he was not a married man.”

Richness, really, richness.

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The Rest of Us Just Live Here : Patrick Ness

The Rest of Us Just Live HereThe Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to really hate the Richard and Judy book club. Every day, after Richard and Judy talked about in television, a thousand people would come into the library and ask for a copy of the book. The book that we only had about five copies of and had already flown off the shelves by 9.03. It was the bane of my life and God I hated those books.

For some reason, that sort of feeling for me started to smudge out of the Richard and Judy space and onto the other popular books. For a long time I didn’t read Patrick Ness. Couldn’t.

I knew that I should, that these books were wildly popular and beautiful things, that the readers I spoke to couldn’t stop themselves from devouring the rest of his work, but I couldn’t – quite – manage it. I couldn’t quite get past that moment – same as with the Richard and Judy books – that we’d inevitably not have as many of them in stock as we should, as I wanted to give the reader, and then when the customer realised we didn’t have the books, we’d have a fun discussion about the deficiencies of everything, myself included. Not always, but often enough to make it into the urban folklore of that particular library. (“It’s Richard and Judy Day!” “I’ll hide in the back!” “No, I will!”)

Eventually, reader I read Ness and oh it was good. His writing is vivid and heartfelt and literary and true.

The Rest Of Us is no exception to that rule.

It tells the story of those who are on the sidelines whilst in the background, somebody else tries to save the world. The Zeppo‘s, if you will. But really, to refer to this book in such a context is to sort of disregard the quiet depth of it. Ness has written a book about the struggles of the real world; the struggles that living itself brings, and the power and grace and pain of the friends and families that see us through it.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a relatively quiet book, in comparison to the high drama going on in the background of it. Each chapter opens with a brief precis of the ‘other’ story occuring in the world: world ending, death, yadda yadda, whilst in the ‘main’ chapters, we stay with Mikey and his friends. They just want to survive through to graduation. They just want to live.

I like Ness. I like him a lot. I like writing like this that isn’t afraid of burnishing the perceived truth of life and uncovering what’s underneath that. I like his sympathy, I like the heart of this book; the love of people and the hope that that love brings. I think that’s enough to live for, and I suspect that maybe that’s the point of it all.

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The Vasa Piglet : Björn Bergenholtz


Vasa Piglet : Front Cover

Vasa Piglet : Front Cover

The Vasa Piglet by Björn Bergenholtz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m distinctly conscious that the books I review tend to fit a particular canon of authors, style and language. Whilst some of that is perfectly understandable and self-explanatory (*cough*bit of a fan of the school story *cough cough*), there’s a point where those canonical edges should be challenged and reshaped. Reading out of ones remit, as it were.

This is something I’d always encourage readers and people who work with readers to try and support. Boundaries are made when we become comfortable in our reading. It is always worthwhile to test the nature of those boundaries to realise the points where they are thin and poorly made. Enable difference, divergence. Turn left instead of right. Put away all the fiction books and just have non fiction on display. Talk about reading and choices. Let the child dictate to you what both of you read. Read together, read apart. Read differently. Publishers like Pushkin Press and Big Picture Press are catching my eye a lot for their titles which facilitate this bold and adventurous approach towards children’s literature, fictional and otherwise. Let me know of any others you recommend?

The Vasa Piglet

The Vasa Piglet : internal image

Today’s review is of a gorgeous little picture book from Stockholm. The titular Vasa Piglet is Piglet Lindbom who has been taken from his home and put on the royal warship Vasa, about to launch from Stockholm harbour. Piglet Lindbom realises quite quickly that he’s destined to be eaten and must escape. As he tries to figure out his escape, he hides down below in the shadows before climbing up the mast and hiding in the nest. All the while, the ship is taking on its supplies and preparing to set sail….

The Vasa Piglet is based on true events. The Vasa was a real boat and you can find out what happened to her here (spoilers!). The book itself has been fact checked by the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Whilst I’m no historian, the images present what feels like a realistic portrayal of life in Stockholm at the time (and the endpapers in particular neatly bring the story into the present day).

Vasa Piglet : Looking down onto the ship

Vasa Piglet : Looking down onto the ship

The text has a distinct charm despite certain points of it being somewhat stiffly rendered in the translation that I read. I loved the moments where Piglet Lindbom climbed up the rigging “forgetting that pigs can’t climb rigs” and gets given grief from a seagull “Copy me. Fly!”. Piglet Lindbom’s world weary respone is to think: “Seagulls don’t know much about pigs.”

Visually, The Vasa Piglet is charmingly distinct and quite avant-garde at times. Certain images cover several moments at once, imbuing the page with a level of dynamism and direction as well as making the reader actively engage with the visuals present.

There’s a romantic twist to some of the spreads as well. One key example of this is the cover, where Piglet Lindbom sits at the top of the mast and stares out into the blue ink sky, dotted with stars. The visual clues of this are fairly emphatic in nature : Piglet Lindbom will survive as he’s looking forward into the future and not being chased by an angry / hungry chef. The tension of this book doesn’t exist in that moment. Rather, it exists in the machinations behind that moment. How will Piglet Lindbom escape the Vasa? What happens, to those of us who do not know of the Vasa (and I was one!), is quite the surprise…. (I’m trying to not spoiler the ending, but that last sentence is hideous – forgive me!). In essence The Vasa Piglet has its faults but as a whole delivers an unusual, somewhat eccentric and oddly charming experience.

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Peace Comes to the Chalet School : Katherine Bruce

Peace Comes to the Chalet SchoolPeace Comes to the Chalet School by Katherine Bruce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a rule, I find the Chalet School fill in novels complex. A part of me welcomes their presence as it reflects that readerly hunger of mine for this series, and yet another part of me rampantly dislikes it and begins to think of the dilution of intellectual property and the impingement upon Brent-Dyer’s canon of work by others. I get selfish, I think, with these books: I want them all for my own, and so to acknowledge the transformative impact that they have had on others (made manifest in the writing of these novels) is an inherently complicated notion.

But I really like Peace Comes To The Chalet School.

I bought it on a whim, full of pique at all these novels connected to this beloved series of mine (there’s that possessive pronoun again) and at the way that I only had a few of them in my greedy readers hands. I liked the sound of it; the way it dealt with a period of time that was, to be frank, a period which bought some of the best writing from Brent-Dyer. I’ve written about the great grace of The Chalet School in Exile before, and that period also sees some of the greatest moments in Chalet School history. Elizabeth. Betty. Polly Heriot on the train. The Peace League. Lavender’s bath. Bride Bettany. The thought of an another author approaching that period both intrigued me and, in a way, made me a little bit envious. I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think I could adhere to the markers of plot and of structure and of canon that are scattered so liberally before and after.

But Bruce does so very well. I love Peace Comes To The Chalet School and I’d warrant that it’s one of the best fill-ins I’ve read. Bruce balances the needs of the series (the old girls, the religion, the middles!) with a fine awareness of the historical period. Her writing is occasionally too workmanlike and controlled, wrapping off moments before they should be wrapped off or explored further, but those moments are intermittent and fleeting. What Bruce does very well is capture the adults and that sense of wild relief and euphoria that must have come with the news of the wars end. There’s some beautiful and intensely moving moments, which are only further explored with the reactions of the girls. I cried. My heart grew three sizes. Bruce handles that very well and with a distinct element of skill (such a big cast. Such a big cast).

(And oh, Joanna Linders! The European girls!)

I like this novel. I like it a lot, because it feels true and whilst I know it’s a fill in, quite distinctly so at points, there are moments when I forget that. And I think that’s perhaps one of the greatest compliments that I can give it.

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