How to make the perfect film : take one small brown bear…

It’s not easy to make a children’s film. It’s not easy to do anything with or for children (parents, I can see you nodding in the back there) because of the sheer breadth of childhood experience that is out there. Articulating a story is easy when it’s for yourself; articulating a story that reaches out to others and hits something within them, that’s hard.And when you’re adapting something from a book, it gets even harder. Do you adapt your reading of the book or do you try and broaden the experience? Do you keep the bits you love or do you drop them when somebody else gives you negative feedback? How do you find the space for your story within a very successful other story?

Shall I tell you what you do, oh mystical implied other? You watch Paddington, that’s what you do, and you realise that this is probably the best movie out there (ever) that’s been adapted from a children’s book and then you hang up your socks and do something else because nothing you ever do will beat this pure and wonderful and loved piece of work.

paddington_bear_ver4.jpgPaddington is a joy. Adapted from Michael Bond’s Paddington books in which a small bear from Darkest Peru comes to London, the film is pretty much perfect. I don’t say that lightly and indeed, I didn’t expect it to be. You come to these movies with an awareness of the potential for failure. For every Paddington, there’s a Golden Compass or a Narnia; films which take these great swathes of wonderful literature and transform them into something a bit, well, awful.

Paddington defies that because it is a film which doesn’t underestimate its audience. Driven by a strong sense of magical realism, this London teeters on the edge of the fantastic and revels in it. Candy coloured houses, preternaturally present pigeons (one of the best running gags in the films), bands playing in the street, and characters who don’t bat an eyelid at a bear walking down the street. There are references back to evacuated children, touching on one of the great themes at the heart of Paddington, and this drives one of the most wonderful and heartwrenching sequences of the film (underpinned by a lovely and incredibly potent turn from Jim Broadbent). It’s smart film-making, and it’s brave and it’s innovative and it’s challenging. Scenes shift on a dime, leaves fall from a painted tree to signify the shift in the seasons, and I’ve never seen Paddington station look so wonderful. It’s easy to neglect the background in a film like this, but this is painterly space; landscape which tells the story as much as the spoken word does.This is a film which delivers slapstick and social commentary all in the same breath, alongside some of the best looking marmalade I’ve ever seen.

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a film on this blog, and a lot of that’s driven from a slight malaise. I’ve not seen a film for a long time that has had me marked with love for it from the get go; there are moments, always, within every film, but it has been too long since I have been left breathless with love for something.

Paddington is perfect. It really, really is.

Here’s to you bear.

Transformers Robots In Disguise : Where Crown City Comes to Life

Transformers: Robots in Disguise: Where Crown City Comes to LifeTransformers: Robots in Disguise: Where Crown City Comes to Life by Caroline Rowlands

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s something rather wonderful about a book which elicits a “Whoah” from everyone you show it to. Transformers : Robots in Disguse : Where Crown City Comes To Life is a non-fiction media tie-in with one very unique aspect: augmented reality. For those of you yet to come across this, the most overt example of augmented reality within the media recently has been Pokemon Go. Through the usage of an app on their phone, people are able to look through the camera onto a scene and ‘see’ an introduced virtual object into that scene.

I’ve not seen much work with augmented or interactive realities in children’s literature, fiction or non-fiction (perhaps the best one I know of is the The Search for WondLa though that’s a few years old now), and so when I heard about this title – and its contemporaries – I got in touch with the publisher who kindly provided me with a review copy. And oh, oh, it’s really brilliant. This is the sort of book that challenges the opposition between books and technology by integrating the two; the book is used as a book, but as a space for interactive play, and for investigation, and as a game. It is the sort of book that you give the child who will play a game for ever and yet, struggles with books for one reason or another. It’s a bridge, this, but it’s immensely spectacular in its own right.

Format wise, it’s fairly traditionally presented nonfiction and it’s the AR element which makes it. It’s not the biggest of books, but it’s well produced and robust. It goes through several of the key autobots and decepticons, and certain pages have embedded AR elements on them so after downloading the free app, you’re able to hold your phone over these pages and ‘unlock’ a further element of them. This ranges from being able to walk and transform bots, through to driving around the room. Additional features of the app let you have robot fights with another party. I tested all the options but the latter and found them all excellent. Some of the finer detail / handling was a little complex, and there’s a brief learning curve to cope with so it might be useful to have a parent / savvy elder sibling round if needs be. But, I loved this. This is exciting, savvy work, and I’m thrilled to have a book out there in the world that does it so well.

I’ve added some pictures here of some of the AR features on the Sideswipe page. The first shows the page as it is, the second and third with the AR activated.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Good Immigrant : (ed) Nikesh Shukla

The Good ImmigrantThe Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes it takes me a while to get to literature, relying as I do upon my heavily used library card, and so I was thrilled to finally get to the top of the reservation queue and pick up The Good Immigrant. It’s a book I’ve heard a lot about and sometimes, I think, these books have a complex pre-read to overcome. Suffice to say The Good Immgirant exceeded those, challenged those, and lived up to much that I wanted from it. It is one to be added to library lists, furiously so.

The Good Immigrant a collection of 21 essays from black, Asian and minority ethinic writers who explore the perspective of otherness within the UK today. The voices here are personal, tight, nuanced things and many of the essays are near-visceral experiences. Edited by Nikesh Shukla, who provides both an essay and foreword, this is a potent collection of work.

As somebody who specialises in children’s and young adult literature, I was particularly interested in Darren Chetty’s essay. Chetty, a primary school teacher, writes about how he was told by one of his pupils of colour that stories have to be about white people. It’s such a simple, horrific moment and Chetty has a great skill in his essay in recounting both it and his reaction. One of the things I value as a researcher and emphasise is the need to maintain the awareness of the child at the heart of children’s literature; we work in the heights of academia but moments such as that which Chetty discusses are the grassroots of the subject. They need to be both addressed and acknowledged. I do not work for a culture of erasure, nor for a cultural monolith, and I suspect I will be recommending Chetty’s essay to many.

As ever in a collection of essays, there are some which hit and some which don’t. Much of The Good Immigrant is fiercely on point, beautifully written and deeply disturbing. Several of the essays were intense, searing and vital experiences. This a big, vital read.

(And also, on a design note, that cover is rather wonderful).

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Wanted : Guest Posts

This is just a quick note to say that I’m looking for a few more guest posts. I’m meeting so many interesting people doing interesting things that I want to share them with you….and I will! I’m queuing up some amazing guests at the moment (augmented reality anyone?)

But I Want More…

So you, yes you, should pitch me! Talk to me about Interesting Things and Children’s Literature. Tell me what you’re doing with children’s books. I’d love to hear from researchers working in children’s literature, charities, mums and dads, and kids! Lovely amazing smart kids!

Pitch me about the bookish things that make you excited. But please, no pitches about Twilight. I can go a thousand years without hearing about Twilight. We’re all past Twilight.

Remember that pitching does not automatically equal yes. I reserve the right to say no without feedback. (Though I will give you feedback if I can.)

Here’s a contact form should this be your sort of thing. (Guess who just found the contact form button?). I will offer editorial support if you need it (we all need it, I need a bracket intervention right about now) and I will offer you space to talk about what you’re doing to change the world. Please pitch!


“She has torn yet another dress”: Reflections on being a book collector

It’s hard to pinpoint where you fell in love with something when you have been in love with that something for a while. I don’t remember my first book, nor my first library, nor my first story. I remember beats in my journey of literacy, of reading; moments that echo in my heart and sing out, oddly, vibrantly, sharply, when I least expect it. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a great armchair. Telling the librarian what happened in a story. Passing round the salacious bits in a Jilly Cooper (wonderful, wonderful Jilly Cooper).

I don’t remember when I fell in love with the Chalet School. It’s been too long, really, and I can’t begin to unpick the stitch of this book inside of me. It simply is a love; a love I have for an eccentric Aunt that turns up at Christmas brandishing gift, or those moments when you see your favourite thing reduced at Waitrose. Simply, indefinable, truthful moments. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fullness.

But I do remember the moments within the series that cling to me a little harder than most; and one of them is in the below image. It’s a simple paragraph, part of The Princess at the Chalet School, and what I want you to do is read it it and then read it out loud. Slowly. Carefully. Dwell on that last little speech of Mademoiselle’s, and the way that it has so much effortless wonder in it. That final, round full stop of a sentence. It is a perfect paragraph, and perfectly ended.


Now, there’s a part of me that could talk for hours about the thematic implications of that paragraph and the great symbolism it holds for the notion of feminine power within the series, but I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe later. I’m totally already planning it.

But, for now, what I’m trying to say is that there are moments within a text that make you find your home. I’d forgotten about this one but when I read it again yesterday, I realised that it was one of the best moments of the series for me. It is a paragraph that brings me home.

It is love, caught up in the tight ink curve of letters and of space on a page, it is love.

What is Red? : Suzanne Gottlieb & Vladimir Bobri

What Is Red?What Is Red? by Suzanne Gottlieb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently republished by the blessed Bodleian Library, What is Red? is a charming and rather beautiful book. It’s a simple journey through a series of colours framed around a question and answer dialogue: “What is Red? / Red is the colour of many things / – apples and berries and warm glowing fires” (A quick reminder, when I use ‘/’ in quotes, it’s to show where the line breaks are.) This continues throughout as we learn that the earth is brown, that the sky is blue and that the sun is yellow. The book concludes with the protagonist, Jonny, learning that night is black and it’s time to go to bed and dream of tomorrow’s adventures.

Originally published in 1961, this has a rather distinct charm about it. Bobri’s vibrant and beautiful illustrations would sell this book by itself. It’s a thick, chunky sort of style that occasionally borders on abstraction and it’s gorgeous. These are illustrations to wallow in; colour spills from edge to edge on the page, a tall sunflower grins down, and beyond the window, a fat, rich sun rises with thick yellow triangular rays. I did feel some of the accompanying texts were a little cumbersome and wordy, but I suspect much of that is grounded in my love for the illustrations; I’ll always inch towards a slender, finely worked narrative where the illustrations are this strong and impactful.

I am grateful to the Bodleian for the chance to review this title.

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The Farmer and the Fairy and other stories : Elizabeth Clark

The Farmer and the Fairy: And Other StoriesThe Farmer and the Fairy: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘The Farmer and The Fairy and other stories’ is a beautifully produced volume of Elizabeth Clark’s folkloric stories. Drawn from a variety of cultures, these stories range from ‘Yogodagu and the Bees of Yamato’ through to ‘The Tale of King Solomon and the Hoopoe’. Illustrated throughout by my beloved Nina K. Brisley (who worked on the original Chalet School hardbacks), the volume contains a series of small, detailed black and white illustrations and the occasional full page colour plate. It also has a ribbon of which I approve greatly. There is very little better in books than a good ribbon.

Clark is new to me, but her work reminded very much of the Perraults and of Madame D’Aulnoy. She retells stories without losing their original roots, situating them within their cultural context whilst allowing the story to speak for itself. Certain of these cultural aspects, particularly as embodied in Brisley’s illustrations, have dated a little but again, these are discussions and learning processes for the reader to engage with and learn from.

I liked this slim volume a lot, though I suspect it might inch in appeal towards the collector as opposed to the more general audience. One aspect I undoubtedly loved were the comprehension questions at the back of the novel; I’m not sure as to whether they’re original or added in for this volume, but they’re all twisted towards asking the reader to retell the story and make it their own. This focus on the communicative aspect of story, of the transference of literature, is something that has a very great weight within children’s literature. and I will always love it.

I am grateful to Pikku Publishing for the review copy.

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