There May Be A Castle : Piers Torday

There May Be a CastleThere May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I suspect there may be awards in this book’s future. It is a bath-go-cold sort of book; a wheeling, soaring skim through a car journey that goes very wrong and then into somewhere else. Somewhere other. And it’s in this other place that young Mouse has just woken up. His mother isn’t here. Neither are his sisters. It’s just Mouse, a sarcastic talking horse and a sheep that says baa.

And Mouse knows exactly what to do in such fantastical, quest-beginning, sort of circumstances : he is to find the castle. He is to be the hero.

It’s hard to talk about this nuanced, rich book without spoiling elements of it so forgive me if I generalise occasionally. I will try not to, but I want to tell you about how perfect There May Be A Castle is and I want to sort of tell it whilst I’m still lost in it. This is a book that I don’t want to step back from. I think Torday’s getting better – and he was wonderful beforehand. There May Be A Castle feels stronger, somehow, more potent (and again, I say this with the caveat of how wonderful Torday’s other work is). It’s a book that is almost palpable with intent – and freedom. It revels in its space. It knows its space. It is a space of fantasy and of otherness, but also of bravery. Both Mouse and his sister face quests of their own, quests that rely intensely on bravery and being able to take control of the apparently uncontrollable.

I love this book. I love the strength of the protagonists. I love how confident it feels, how potent and powerful it is, and I love it and hate it and love it for the way it made me weep at the ending. I love how it smashes fairytales firmly into the present and makes them into something wonderfully profound and awful and brilliant and gorgeous. It is layered and rich and wonderful and I love it, I love it.

There May Be A Castle is due out on October 6th. I would mark the date.

My thanks to Quercus for the review copy.

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Looking at the Stars : Jo Cotterill

Looking at the StarsLooking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amina tells stories. She has an imagination, a powerful one, and it’s been her companion throughout the war that has ravaged her country. Her family have felt the impact of this differently, but they are together. That is enough. That is enough to survive. But then things start to change, and slide horribly out of control and Amina’s family life is shattered. Nothing will ever be the same again. Will Amina ever tell a story again? What’s going to happen to her family?

I am reading some good, good books lately. This, a tale of family and refugees and the terrible impact of war, is one of them and had me utterly in tears at the ending. Looking At The Stars is a book about imagination, voice and the power of story. It is also a book about the worst of humanity, and how people can so easily shift into horrific violence. It is, as you may imagine, hard to judge this sort of tone in a book for young readers and I think one of the strengths of this is that it is set in a fictional environment. This could be anywhere; there are echoes of Iraq, Afghanistan but also of Nazi Germany and the cumulative impact of this is to create a fictional ‘everyplace’ where, in a way, the story gains more immediacy precisely because it could be anywhere. It could be anywhere.

Cotterill pitches Looking At The Stars perfectly; she writes with a sympathetic warmth which doesn’t shy away from detailing some of the more graphic incidents that occur throughout the narrative. There are some which are difficult to read (as ever, read the book if you are working with it and know the context of the children you work with) but they are never gratuitous. They are painful, heartbreaking, emotional, but they are never poorly handled. It’s a great skill to have and one that gives this book its great strength. It is a story about stories and storytelling, and the delicious edge of that isn’t dulled. If anything, it’s sharpened through Cotterill’s restrained and quiet prose and her beautiful ability to see the wonder in a starlit sky. What a book this is.

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What’s A Girl Gotta Do? Holly Bourne

What's a Girl Gotta Do? (The Spinster Club, #3)What’s a Girl Gotta Do? by Holly Bourne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Activate yourself” That was the take-home quote from a talk I attended the other day. The speaker was Sandi Toksvig who was eloquent, smart and spoke painfully on the erasure of women from politics. Activate yourself. She started a political party.

And I read a book.

I read this, really, devoured it, in a couple of hours, because Holly Bourne is on fire here and this is the sort of book that should be mandatory for every teen everywhere. I can’t praise it enough. There’s a niche in today’s society that I wish didn’t exist but it does. Sexism. Gendered Politics. Double Standards. What’s A Girl Gotta Do? investigates that niche and challenges it – everything about it. For one month Lottie challenges herself to call out every instance of sexism she witnesses. And it is exhausting, and terrifying and heartbreaking, but my God, so brave and so powerful to let her do it. To let this story bang its drum and to be told. This is vital, pulsing story and it’s brilliant. Bourne writes with rage and with love and with heart.

This is what young adult literature does. It investigates. It challenges. It lays bare the best and worst of people and it asks the reader to decide who they’re going to be. What’s A Girl Gotta Do? is challenging, delicious, delightful and brilliant. Shelve this with books like Trouble and Asking For It and let them ask the question that needs to be asked: how are you going to activate yourself?

Fire, fire in every word, heart and soul (and a lot of cheese based snacks), What’s A Girl Gotta Do? is outstanding. I was going to save this review for next week. I couldn’t wait. Books like this make me evangelical.

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No Castanets at the Wells : Lorna Hill

No Castanets at the Wells (Sadler's Wells #3)No Castanets at the Wells by Lorna Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are the most beautiful books I own. The hardback editions of the Chalet School come close to them (that is, when I can sell my liver to afford one) but somehow they never quite reach the great grace of the Sadler’s Wells books. I think it all centres on that front cover and the way that they, all of them, catch light so well. These are sunlight, morning books full of warmth and glowing life. The artist, Esme Verity, is actually Hill’s daughter working under a pseudonym. And she’s gifted, incredibly. These are such painterly, eloquent books.

So, to No Castanets at the Wells, the third in this vibrant series. As with many of the authors I love, Hill was at her best early on in her series and this is joyful. Without giving away much of the plot, Hill inverts the ideal of the ballet story and points out the diverse nature of talent. Everyone has something special about themselves and to discover this isn’t easy, but it is most worthwhile.

I love these books. I love the poetics of them, the edge of space, the way that dance – music – artistic expression, all of it, is something serious and artful and important and worthwhile. There are certain sequences in this novel which are borderline epochal, both on a personal level but also with regards to the wider sector of children’s literature. There is love, there is fought for and tempestuous love, but there’s also character and nuanced, sharp reading of people.

I love this book. I love this series. Is that repetitive? I fear it is, but I don’t care. Hill is an education in the poetics of story; that graceful, carved edge of character and of space and place and of movement. When she is at her best, as she is in several points during this book, she is outstanding. Effortless, outstanding, peerless.

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Who are you if you are afraid? : On mediating complex content in children’s literature


“If I have the agency to read texts for young people critically, then might not young readers have this agency also?”

Nodelman, Perry (2016) The hidden child in the hidden adult Jeunesse : Young People, Texts, Cultures 8 (1), pp266-277


I have been thinking about this post for a while and how best to approach it. It was thrown into sharp relief by a few conversations I had recently, and some online activity I watched, which made me realise that I was thinking about the books I study and work with and read, madly, feverishly, selfishly, and had some ideas around content that were worth exploring in a post like this. I am self-indulgent on this blog, I know, but things like this matter immensely. Literature is a building block, a superpower, and once we understand how it does what it does and how we influence that doing, we are warriors.

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The Chalet School and the Island : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and the Island (The Chalet School, #25)The Chalet School and the Island by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s perhaps the context that I’m in right now, swithering from thesis research to thesis research, that when I reread The Chalet School and the Island, I was deeply amazed to find a book that I’d never read before. Of course, I knew of Annis and had read of Kester Bellever and of St Briavels and I knew this book.

I didn’t. Not really.

Giving one book and delivering another underneath is sort of the Brent-Dyer trademark. She gives a covert textuality of independence and liberation masked in the genre tropes of a girl’s school story. Midnight feasts. Future potential careers. Middles playing jokes. Potential penury. It is occasionally jarring and it is occasionally poorly done but don’t ever tell me that these books don’t preach a furious ideology of choice. Be who you are meant to be. Not who you should be. Become a Nun, be a mother, teach, lecture on antiquities, go to university, be a vet, a doctor, whatever – all of these are valid and relevant choices for the girls and thus, by that delicious implication of textuality, for the reader. The Chalet School preaches choice. Freedom. Always has, always will, and to dismiss that on the grounds of a misreading or on the grounds of the irrelevance of the non-canonical, populist text, is to dismiss a great swathe of girlhood. Womanhood. Selfhood.

The Chalet School and the Island sees some rather glorious moments as the school relocates once more to an island near Wales. The location, as ever with Brent-Dyer, varies a little over the next few books but for now let’s settle on Wales. Jack eats a lot of crumpets (I have never loved Jack more) as he delivers some healthy exposition on the topic, and then term starts with a hearty not-so-much-of-Jacynth-as-I’d-quite-like but quite-enough-of-Mary-Lou.

Brent-Dyer seems to thrive on change and challenging the status quo of her ever more lengthy books. Some of her writing here is gorgeous, and although she does slip into some slightly rose-tinted paragraphs, the majority of it is rich and refreshing and good. She was good, and her new characters here are wonderful. From the deeply gorgeous Kester Bellever, a famous bird-watcher and naturalist, through to the entire Christy family and the background notes of the established characters such as Doris Trelawney, it’s embracing, warm and lovely.

And it’s powerful, too, dealing with topics as mixed as (deep breath) potential penury, orphans, isolation, religion, future career choices, and the impact of the second world war. That’s the thing about these books. On the surface they’re one thing, but underneath, they’re everything.

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