The Lost Staircase : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Lost StaircaseThe Lost Staircase by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rather love this slim, eccentric story that doesn’t quite know what it’s meant to be. I came to it from the Chalet School series which sees two of the characters from The Lost Staircase attend the school. It’s a bravura step and one which happens in the Chalet School books on a fairly regular basis. I always imagine Brent-Dyer inserting these textual Easter Eggs with a slight smugness and well earned sense of satisfaction.

The Lost Staircase itself is a standalone novel which tells of the adventures of young Jesanne Gellibrand, heiress to the Dragon House. The Dragon House is a stately home that reads, at times, with a delightful giddiness and over-excitement and following the death of family, Sir Ambrose brings his young cousin and closest heir home from New Zealand to come into her inheritance. And then there’s a bit about a Lost Staircase which is supremely wonderful because of its grimly committed presence within the novel.

It’s an odd one this but, as I say, deeply charming. Some of it rests on the tangibility of the book itself; it’s smaller than a traditional Chalet School hardback and much of that is due to it being printed in the economy standards that the second world war. The paper is thin, the text closely typed, and it’s all a rather evocative experience. I always find the object of the book as much interest as the book itself and for this to be published in 1946 and to talk so deeply of richness, of heritage and tradition and of wealth, is fascinating.

Textually, it takes a while to get to the point. Much of this seems to centre on Brent-Dyer’s slight tendency to go a bit Angela Brazil and to revel in the romantic context a tad too much. Yet somehow this is still rather lovely because when Brent-Dyer hits it, she hits it square on. The Dragon House is overwritten but madly appealing. Jesanne rides around, romps with dogs, battles with a governess, and gets one of the best Christmas presents ever depicted in a children’s book. It’s gorgeous. But then, having said that, there’s that traditional moment of eccentricity to be found in a Brent-Dyer book, and in The Lost Staircase a plot point turns upon a banana skin.

The Lost Staircase is ridiculous but wonderful; a sort of dizzying mix of the deeply romantic and practical tips about dog keeping. It’s eccentric. It is gorgeous.

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Thanks Obama

I was thinking today that I can’t remember a politician who has so actively centred books within his public dialogue and persona. Literature. Education. The power of the novel and the belief in collective education. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a British context and that saddens me. But I saw it in the Obama administration and I loved that.

Books matter, and you know that if you’re here. Books, and the reading of them, and the public embrace and advocacy of them matters. And when you’re president or prime minister or the head of a school, or a mum or a dad, you almost have to forget yourself because, in a way, you don’t matter. What matters is the act of reading. Of participating. Of believing that we’re better together. Of knowing that empathy and understanding and knowledge is good. Great. Powerful.

And I think the Obama administration got that.

When you read, when you model behaviours, when you talk about the books that matter to you, you share and you advocate and you talk and you connect. And you build hope and connections and you build the ability to disagree but to do so on the strength of your literacy, of your ability to synthesise and understand and analyse information, and you build the ability to connect.

You build with books.

Thanks Obama.

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen : Hope Nicholson

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book HistoryThe Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History by Hope Nicholson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Due out in May, this is one of those books that I want to write about now and talk about now because it’s great. Simple as that; I have been looking for books and for writers that historicise their work from a female and a feminist perspective because, so often, that is a perspective that is lacking. And it’s a perspective that I’ve not come across that much in comics and so, because of all of that, and the characters that this text covers, and the sheer welcome presence of it, that I review it and tell you to get it on order and get it on request and to find a hole in your budget for it now.

Nicholson writes with a lot of love for her subject and isn’t afraid to pull and poke at the holes within it. There are always problems in beloved things; nothing is not perfect and there’s a skill in being able to love and to address the problematics within your subject. Nicholson doesn’t shy away from addressing these and I was struck most powerfully by this with her discussion of Witchblade. Witchblade is a comic I’ve always struggled with visually and Nicholson both reassured me with this perspective whilst helping me to understand the aesthetic more. And I like this; I like people that make me think twice about something.

So yes, this is an early review, but it’s a review that I’ve sat on for about two weeks now and that I don’t want to sit on any more. This is an important and relevant book that talks about heroines ranging from Squirrel Girl through to Xavin through to The Wing. Nicholson ranges widely and freely around her topic and I like that a lot. I like this book, can you tell? There’s a place for it in the world, and I’d like it to inhabit it quite solidly. As Nicholson herself writes, strong female protagonists “belong in comics [and] they’ve been there all along.”

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Girl In Dior : Anne Goetzinger

Girl in DiorGirl in Dior by Annie Goetzinger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been treating myself recently to a wallow in the things I love. (As everyone should do, no?). One of these has been reading about mid-century fashion and France; I am a Francophile and there is nothing better than nibbling the edge from a freshly baked baguette or sinking your teeth into the curved edge of a palmier. I have other loves, not just food related, but they are the most potent right now. Madeleines. You know.

So, to Paris and to the fashion that forms the spine of this city. The rather excellent and well-told Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation was my first stop on this journey and Girl In Dior was the second. This slim, slender graphic novel interweaves a fictional journey of a girl into the House of Dior alongside facts and moments from Dior’s life. It’s an undoubtedly slender story and one that bears much tribute to a fairy tale aesthetic. And there are moments in the world where such an aesthetic is undoubtedly welcome.

Don’t come to this for narrative; rather, come to this for a rather wonderful twist on fashion history with art that sings of a love for the subject. Goetzinger’s use of line; the quavery lightness of gazue and her use of colour; the unfurled bolt of brightly coloured material, laid starkly against a bright white page, are wonderful things. Girl In Dior is something rather wonderful and poetic and aching and softly told and I really rather loved it. Maybe it’s the nipped waists, or those full skirts, or the exuberant “New Look!” cry; or maybe it’s because I rather love these books that seek to tell the human edge of story. The moments of Dior in his country house, designing; there’s not enough of them, because they are poignant, heartfelt, and suddenly, intensely brilliant.

I want more from this boook because there’s not enough of it and I suspect that’s its main problem. A lot happens, swiftly; there’s not enough time to savour it, nor to develop rationale nor character, but then – does such a book need this? I’m not sure I can answer that here. What I can say is that what this book gives, it gives with utter and absolute joy.

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A Brush With The Past : Shirley Hughes

A Brush With the Past: 1900 - 1950 The Years that Changed our LivesA Brush With the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that Changed our Lives by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was upon reading this that I came to realise something about Shirley Hughes and that is the great genuine humanity of her artwork. I have spoken before about how much I love her work (Alfie Gets In First possesses what is perhaps the most skilled usage of the picture book format I have ever seen) and A Brush With The Past is a rather wonderful addition to that canon. Canon. We don’t often use that word with children’s literature, or picture books, and it often gets fixed to something deeply removed from most people’s experience. The highest of terms. But in doing that, in allowing it to be taken and applied to work that perhaps deserves such a label yet achieves that at the exclusion of others, we do ourselves an injustice. So here I shall reclaim it. Shirley Hughes has a canon; it is a nuanced and smart and genuine and human and wonderful space which reflects all of what we are and all of what we could be. What skill this is, what skill.

A Brush With The Past is constructed on a quietly steady pattern, hinging on the dialogue between singular pages of information and lusciously rich double page spreads which detail the fifty years of history between the 1900s and 1950s. This spreads, human all, show different scenes from the period ranging from a family meal to lunching alone through to a business man’s meeting.

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It’s the double page spreads that make this book into something quite spectacular. The detailed little notes around the years are fabulous; alternatively exuberant or quiet, calm and vibrant, and burning with the eye of an observer. We know Hughes can draw, but this is somebody who can capture. These are moments of life; all of them grounded in the human experience and captured so very carefully. An artistic blink. But oh those double page spreads, the richness of them. I returned to them often in this book just to stare and to let the great power of Hughes’ work hit me. This is palpable, honest, heartfelt and loving art. Look at how a boy sat at the table could sit with both feet flat on the chair but instead doesn’t; look at the energy trapped in that left leg of his, and the raised sole of the right foot. He doesn’t want to be there any longer than he has to be. IMG_20170103_221733931.jpg

Look at the other end of the table; the vague outline of the bare-boned tree outside and the little tableau occuring between the two women. The ambition that she’ll eat it. That she’ll appreciate it. The certainty that she won’t. The cat lurking, ready to pick up any leftovers. This is what I mean when I talk about humanity; Hughes finds detail and she pushes her work full of it. IMG_20170103_221723239.jpg

The Journey : Francesca Sanna

The JourneyThe Journey by Francesca Sanna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Journey is something rather special and painfully beautiful; it’s a picture book which retells the journey of a nameless family of refugees. Told in a mixture of calm double page spreads, and singular pages, the family have to leave their home after the war begins. They set off on a journey to “another country. A country far away with high mountains”; and it is a journey that has to go on without a member of the family. (I shall not spoil what happens to this member, suffice to say that it delivers one of the most poetic, restrained and pained double page spreads I have seen for a long while). The book ends on an unfixed note; the family are still traveling and the narrator sees some birds up above: “I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. / A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.” In an echo of these words, the final endpaper sees a birds eye view of a red train cutting through the landscape of an unknown country populated by trees and with mountains in the distance.

This book is endorsed by Amnesty International and it’s not hard to see why. The Journey treats its topic with a sensitive restraint and, through refusing to name either the countries involved or the people, invests the narrative with a pained every man quality. Sanna’s work here is vivid, quiet and subtle. It’s work that I suspect is for the slightly older edge of picture book readers and that’s simply due to the layering at work here. There’s so much going on in these wonderful, poetic, nuanced images. It’s Miyazaki meets The Last Unicorn meets an Aubusson tapestry meets a nightmare. Hard to describe, yet unforgettable.

There’s a dark edge to the aesthetic: scenes of familial bliss are edged by the dark edge of something threatening, whilst, in one of the most heart-rending scenes, the children sleep in their mother’s arms whilst she silently weeps into the night. As the text says, the children are unaware of this: “But mother is with us / and she is never scared. / We close our eyes and / finally fall asleep.” It is rare and brilliant work, this, and The Journey is something wonderful to end the year with this book. It is rather special and I hope a future classic.

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Thank you Richard Adams

Richard Adams has passed away aged 96 and I am so sad.

The author of Shardik. The Plague Dogs and Watership Down amongst many other titles, Adams stood for something quite distinct in the world of children’s literature. He stood for bigness; of stories that ache at the edge of the world and carve something else, a space of their very own. I talk a lot about space in children’s literature and of knowing who and what you want to be and what you want to say. It’s important, endlessly, because once you know what you want to be, and where you want your voice to sit and who you want it to talk to, then you can know how to get there. You read, endlessly, hungrily, and through that reading learn how to position yourself.

But then there are the big authors; the statues carved out of marble and wrapped in ivy, the authors who are so resolutely of something different and something wild and unknown and something that is so vividly, vividly theirs that you cannot imagine anybody else ever living there. This was, is, always will be Richard Adams. I came to him after Colin Dann and Joyce Stranger, strong and wonderful authors of their own, and the world split open. Rabbits. Dogs. Darkness thrown against the world and hope and anger and rage and joy and love.

(There is always love at the heart of the greatest works of children’s literature, there is always that. Characters fight, live, die, but there is always love, always love)

These were Adams’ books. They are his books, they are books of power and of primal and distinct power.  These are novels where words become laden with symbolism and thick with meaning and of story; novels that feel like they’re not told but retold; a story that already exists out there simply finding new voice. These are wild and big books of otherness and they stand next to the greatest books out there and, in many cases, above them. Rabbits. The world caught in rabbits, and so effortlessly and so artfully done.

I am so very grateful that his books exist and that he was able to share them with us.

Thank you Richard Adams, thank you.

“I’ve come to ask if you’d like to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you, and I know you’d like it. You’ve been feeling tired, haven’t you? If you’re ready, we might go along now.”