Ottoline Goes To School : Chris Riddell

Ottoline Goes to School (Ottoline, #2)Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s very easy for somebody who reads a lot of books to miss an author. And yet, equally, it’s also very easy to have a consciousness of who and what that author is and how they do what they do. This is where I stood with Chris Riddell; conscious that I hadn’t really read much of his work, but conscious that his work was good. And I’d come to that decision for a variety of reasons, not just for the quality of his art work which burns from his books like fire, but also because of the children I knew who pretty much swallowed each and everything he’d published. Sometimes the biggest thing for me, as an adult who’s involved in children’s literature, is to step back and recognise my position as a guest in this space. And if an author’s work is devoured, furiously, hungrily, then that’s an important thing to take note of.

I picked up Ottoline Goes To School after Chris had delivered a charming and annoyingly inspiring lecture at Homerton College. I didn’t possess the persistence or elbows to get to the bookshop first and grab the sumptuous Travels with my Sketchbook which I’ve had my eyes on for a while, but Ottoline Goes To School was an appropriate, and by no means secondary, choice. I was intrigued to see what Riddell did with the school story because they are sort of my thing. And when I got it signed by him, I did my traditional slightly incoherent stare and babble because that too, is also my sort of thing.

This, the second of the Ottoline series, is a delight. Ottoline is off to the Alice. B. Smith School For The Differently Gifted; a boarding school for children with a special an often quite peculiar gift. As she’s trying to figure out what her gift might be, a ghost starts to haunt the school…

I was trying to figure out the best way to describe this lovely book and the idea I kept coming back to was cleanliness. That’s perhaps a little bit of an odd phrase to use and one, I suspect, which doesn’t crop up in children’s literature criticism that often so let me explain a bit more about what I mean.

Ottoline Goes To School is one of those books that balances word with image and does so without compromising the integrity of each. In fact, it’s so beautifully and carefully balanced, this mediation between the visual and the textual, that every page is a delight. And it’s challenging too! Whilst Ottoline is engaged in the complexities of a new school and a Slightly Tremulous New Friendship, Mr Munroe is carefully scouting out the school and trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s the cleanliness, right there, that ability to balance and deliver whole, heartfelt, narrative in word and image without compromising or pressing on the space of the other elements within the spread. This book is so clean, so crisp and sharp, that it’s a joy.

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The Princess and The Suffragette : Holly Webb

The Princess and the SuffragetteThe Princess and the Suffragette by Holly Webb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been really interested in Webb’s recent turn towards some of the classics of children’s literature. She’s not alone in this of course, Jacqueline Wilson delivered the delightful Four Children And It, whilst Kate Saunders wrote the powerful Five Children On The Western Front.

Webb turned towards the rich grounds of The Secret Garden with the sequel: Return To The Secret Garden and in The Princess And The Suffragette delivers a sequel, of sorts, to Sara Crewe, Or What Happened At Miss Minchin’s (also known as A Little Princess). I say ‘of sorts’ because this is both a sequel and yet also a sort of spin-off, taking the character of Lottie and exploring the circumstances that bought her to Miss Minchin’s Seminary. It’s an interesting angle to take what with Lottie being, to be fair, a bit of a moppett in the original books and locating the subsequent story within the confines of the school. I don’t know about you but (spoilers!) when Sara left, I left as well. These books don’t look back. Not much of children’s literature does (oof, there’s a sweeping statement; forgive me, we’ll explore this more at a later date…!).

Where Webb shines is in how accessible and genuine she make all this feel. Lottie’s slow political awakening, and the parallels to A Little Princess, never feel forced. They never feel definite either, edged with more questions than answers, and that’s another credit to Webb. Books provide answers, sure, but they should never be pat or glib, and sometimes presenting an answer as another question is the truest thing that a story can deserve. And that’s what Webb achieves here; Lottie questions her assumptions and decisions, and Sara, thankfully, is mostly in the background. This isn’t a book which attempts to appropriate Sara, with all the goodwill of the original book, and repurpose her narrative for some forced, farcical reasons, but rather a book that seeks to understand the charged social atmosphere that the young ladies of that time were being asked to exist within. And I like that.

I am grateful to the author for a review copy.

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Here I Stand : Amnesty International UK

Here I StandHere I Stand by Amnesty International UK

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this pained, poised collection of short stories and much of that comes from its careful and classy curation. The authors, ranging from Frances Hardinge through to Sarah Crossan, and Chris Riddell, sit alongside a foreword by a human rights lawyer and an afterword, of sorts, consisting of an interview with Chelsea Manning. Most contributions to the collection have a brief afterwood explaining the context behind the piece, though one of the strongest – ‘Barley Wine’ by Kevin Brooks doesn’t have one and I wonder if it’s actually stronger without such. That brief quibble aside, this is a smart collection and one which hits home, immensely.

‘Here I Stand’ has the subtitle of ‘Stories That Speak For Freedom’, and covers a wide range of topics including genital mutilation, human trafficking, terrorism and racism. An obvious caveat applies around the element of trigger warnings here, but as I recommend with every book of this nature, read it yourself and use it sympathetically and with an eye towards being led by the relevant child’s response. Books like this offer such a valuable spotlight on those issues which often don’t get spotlit and when carefully and considerately mediated, that spotlight can often be revelatory.

I don’t want to speak of highlights here because somehow this doesn’t feel appropriate, but rather I want to look at those pieces which sang out for me. The collection is immensely powerful, but as I said previously, Kevin Brooks’ contribution was something quite remarkable. Ditto ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ from Chibundo Onuzo, a story on the topic of child soldiers, which instead of taking the more expected motifs of its theme delivers something quite astounding. This is the gift of collections like this, the gift of perspective. Sight. A new eye on the familiar. Sometimes stories do become familiar and thus unseen; to deny that familiarity is a great thing. Onuzo’s bare, pained eloquence here speaks volumes.

I like this volume, and I like the careful craft that lays behind it, from Chris Riddell’s beautiful artwork through to the stories, poems, and especially the graphic contribution from Mary and Bryan Talbot with Kate Charlesworth. I think it’s important to recognise that stories, particularly of this nature, aren’t just these neat things tied up in bows and that embrace of diverse form is another point in Here I Stand. It’s a tired phrase to call something important, but then again, so many of the books being published at the moment are. Here I Stand stands firmly with those, and indeed manages to carve a space of its very own.

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My Miniature Library

My Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and TreasureMy Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and Treasure by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s been a bit of a delay in my reviewing of this because, to be frank, I’ve been too busy screaming with joy over it. Every. Single. Time. I’m not one for craft, really, as I have the adeptness of a lemon when it comes to such things, but My Miniature Library is adorable. And accessible! And a conceit so delightful that it almost beggars belief!

Presented in a robust box, the contents of My Miniature Library make up thirty small books – both classic and less well known, alongside several blanks to create your own book. These books can be subsequently displayed on a small bookshelf, which can be then situated against the backdrop of the box which, on the interior, is patterned with a wall scene and carefully laid floor (seriously, if you’re not squeaking with joy at this point then we need to talk). The tiny books themselves are madly delightful. I’m not sure why such extremes of scale are, but these are beautiful. The instructions are clear; super little people might need help with the more fiddly aspects, but this teaches bookbinding! sequential literacies! how to make your own book! how to become madly possessive over beautiful things!

God , I love this. It’s adorable. Buy it for the young people in your life and then borrow it.

(And by borrow, I mean buy them another and keep one for yourself).

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Looking for Enid : Duncan McLaren

Looking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid BlytonLooking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid Blyton by Duncan McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is possibly the strangest and yet, maybe, one of the most brilliant biographies of an author I’ve ever read. It’s an approach that I don’t think would have worked for anybody but Enid Blyton and so, perhaps, the unorthodoxy of Looking For Enid was always destined to work when its subject was such a furiously unorthodox figure herself.

Looking For Enid sets out to discover the truth behind the myth. Enid Blyton for me has always been one of those authors who controlled her brand. Image was all, irrespective of that which went on behind the scenes. The most immediate example of this is her utobiography, The Story Of My Life which still remains one of the most audaciously artificial texts I have ever read. Enid didn’t – doesn’t – give away her truth easily.

Yet Enid Blyton is an author we all know, and much of that’s due to the cultural shorthands that now, rightfully or wrongfully, surround her name. A ferociously readable writer, possessed of an almost Sisyphean urge to write, she produced bluntly workmanlike narratives that often denied elegance but could be read. Undoubtedly, those narratives are also often coloured of problematic social, gender and ethical characteristics, and I don’t deny nor seek to excuse that. I’m not a fan of Blyton (though I’ll fight the corner for Malory Towers and St Clare’s to be considered as expressions of feminine potential within a society designed to not recognise such), but I do find both the author and the reach her work still has upon British children’s literature utterly fascinating. I’d never heard of Looking For Enid and so was intrigued to see what

Looking For Enid visits locations connected with Blyton; Beaconsfield, Beckenham and Bourne End, with a sort of madly ecccentric metafictive fanfiction element in which the Five Find-Outers attempt to solve the mystery of Enid Blyton’s lost books and in which McLaren slightly Mary-Sue’s himself into the role of Fatty. Along the way, you learn perhaps a little bit too much about uteruses (seriously) and McLaren’s sex life (honestly) and a lot to do with carp (I’m not making any of this up). There’s a lot of Freudian-esque reading into the subtext of Blyton’s work, which, to be frank, always makes me slightly jaded. You look hard enough, you can read a phallus into everything.

Plus the uterus business, really.

But I’m still giving this four stars, and that comes from a recognition of this book’s mad brilliance. It’s infuriating, yes, and could do with stepping away from the socratic exposition that McLaren does tend to engage in with his partner, but it’s sort of fabulous and vividly unique. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this that is so – madly honest – about what it’s like to be a fan, and to love something, and to also just want to find out more. Looking For Enid certainly concludes by finding her; I’m not sure that it’s my Enid, but I do know that the ride towards that point is kind of unforgettable. Mad, weird, totally bizarre, and a bit super odd at points, but also, sort of brilliant.

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The Explorer – Katherine Rundell

The ExplorerThe Explorer by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief moment of context.

I didn’t wholly connect with The Wolf Wilder as much as I did with the rhapsodic and blissful joy of Rooftoppers, and so The Explorer was a book that I read with a little bit of nervousness. Rundell is transcendent, capable of paragraphs that feel like the first footsteps in new fallen snow, but sometimes I connect with her work less than I’d like to. Much of this comes back to my position as reader and my natural predilection for the things and contexts that I love. The Paris of Rooftoppers, for example, is something much closer to my heart than the snowy wilderness of The Wolf Wilder and that’s, perhaps, inevitable. We are readers after all, all of us, and each of us come to a book with a different story of our own. Each book will connect with a reader in ways almost unfathomable to understand. Sometimes it will hit home, and sometimes it will hit home. It’s important to understand this, this aesthetic of reading, because it’s something that can be almost disassociated from the stylistics of the text itself. As I said, Rundell can be transcendent, furiously so, but sometimes it’s the content that fails to connect. You can appreciate something so very much, and be envious – desperately so! – of such skill, whilst also recognising the ways in which it does not wholly hit home for yourself. Though it sounds decrepit to say this, the more I read, the more I recognise the legitimacy of disconnect. You can love something. You can also recognise the beauty in something but not, perhaps, find it life-changing.

So, having said that, and given you some context as to where I was for this review, The Explorer hits home for me. So beautifully, so powerfully, so genuinely so. For me this is Rundell’s texture, these stories of children being bold and brilliant in the most unusual of circumstances and fighting against a world that does not seem to wholly recognise their wonder. She is an author with a childist point of view, that not only positions children as beings of power within their world but also as beings with agency. Power, for me in Rundell’s work, and agency are quite different things. The ability to do something, and the actual doing of that something can often be miles apart. The love, really, that Rundell has for her characters, and the belief that they can do what they need to do.

This is a story of survival, and it’s one pitched for the middle grade audience, so we have moments of terror and furious delight, often tumbling together within a matter of sentences. Nothing is certain in this forest other than the love and faith and strength that friendship and belief can bring. The children are delightful, Max – the youngest – is furiously perfect, and the book sings of the sheer need to have an adventure. As one of the characters comments at one point, “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle. You never know when you might meet an adventure.” The Explorer is touched with a little bit of madness, that feverish urge to look beyond the far brow of the horizon, and I loved it. It’s a book that reminds us to be prepared for adventure, whenever and wherever it may come.

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A Wrinkle In Time : Hope Larson, adap. Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic NovelA Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of books in the world I haven’t read (she says, channeling Franco Moretti) and one of them is A Wrinkle in Time. I’ve a strange antipathy towards classics, and fantastical classics tend to slide towards the bottom of that pile of antipathy. I’m mixing my metaphors quite hideously here, but generally I don’t head towards the classics and I head towards the fantasy classics even less. Some of that stems from the fact that I don’t tend to read much fantasy, and also from the fact that I’m a selfish reader. Honestly, I am. I talk a lot about books and I love books in a furious, forever sort of manner, but sometimes I want to have my reaction be my own. And the classics, in particular, are coloured so very much by what they come to stand for, that sometimes reading them can feel like a futile act. How do you read something when everybody’s already read it for you? It’s for reasons like this that I have a mad sympathy with any child who’s told to stop reading what they want and to instead read what an adult thinks they read. Ten books you should read by the age of ten? Bite me. Eternally.

I’ve been very aware of A Wrinkle In Time for a while without quite knowing the details of what it was. Something to do with something about space, and time, and that was about it. I didn’t really want to read it, but I wanted to read Larson’s adaptation of it. It caught my eye in the bookshop and I was feeling flush. The colours intrigued me; a palette of blues, greys, blacks. Colours of twilight and the thin grey dawn. And so I read it, and then I loved it, and I wept in the bath over the ending.

I can’t tell you how well Larson adapted the original text, not whether this was a faithful or divergent adaptation, but what I can tell you is this. Sometimes it’s good to come into a classic in a different way, and when you’re guided by a wide-eyed Charles Wallace or the unknown strength of Meg Murry, rendered in Larson’s expressive, precise and heartfelt lines, it’s a pretty good route to try. What a lovely, unexpected joy this was.

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