Wild Animals of the North : Dieter Braun

Wild Animals of the NorthWild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The latest step on my Carnegie / Kate Greenaway catch up is Wild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun. Genuinely a little bit breathtaking, this is something rather special.The conceit is simple and easy to grasp: Braun lists a selection of the wild animals to be found across a series of regions in The North. This can cover anything from killer whales in the Arctic through to pandas in Asia. And, as I said, it is something.

It’s hard to quite do justice to Braun’s big, bare, stylish artwork so instead I’ll direct you to a gallery of images. This is remarkable work, genuinely. One of the big points about this book is its size. It’s maybe a little difficult to wield for tinier hands, but that gamble pays off as it allows the artwork to breathe. There’s something rather special about just going big and bare with your work and it’s a gamble that pays off. Some of the images are genuinely breathtaking. All of them would be perfect as pictures on the wall.

Each image of an animal is labelled both with its English and Latin names. Some of them come with extra paragraphs of information, a little eccentrically formed, but still rather charming. What gives this book its strength is that sense of individuality about it. The weight of the paper. The texture of that front cover. The nuanced picking of detail in those paragraphs. I learnt things! (Learning things from a book – who’d imagine such a thing?!)

I loved this. It’s inspiring, distinct and fiercely unique work.

And I want pretty much all of it on my wall.

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Beck : Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

BeckBeck by Mal Peet

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m catching up on my Carnegie reading for this year and Beck was always going to be near the top of my list. From its story of production where Mal Peet passed away whilst writing and Meg Rosoff finished the manuscript, through to its critical reception, Beck is an eyecatching novel. I was never going to start anywhere else. Mal Peet was a remarkable writer and I could talk for days about his work (see here for reviews of Tamar and Life…). Peet wrote about faith and hope and big, sprawling stories of life. I loved them. I am so sorry that he is no longer with us.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t like Beck. Not at all, really.

The titular Beck is an orphan born of an encounter between his mother and an African American soldier. Left alone in the world, he is shipped to Canada and the supposed care of a group of Catholic Brothers. It won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that Beck does not receive anything remotely approximating to care. It also won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that this involves abuse. It is important to read this yourself to fully understand the nature of this but it is written very barely, very plainly, and rather horrendous through its banality. Searing is one way to describe it. Beck moves on, scarred and restless. Another time, another place, the hope to connect. He moves from circumstance to circumstance, some good, some bad, all the while trying to find his place in the world.

It was, as Goodreads somehow delightfully phrases it, just ok.

My dislike didn’t come from the graphic content, though I do recognise how this problematic for some and I would recommend reading it yourself before working with it. Tonally, Beck reminded me a lot of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks and I wonder if this does win the Carnegie, whether there will be a conversation to have about the evolving tone of children’s literature and what we consider as meritable in the field. Is meritable a word? I don’t think it is, but I think its appropriate.

I got Beck yesterday afternoon (A library open on a sunday? Imagine!), gleeful after my reservation came in early, and I finished it that same day. And all I had was a glorious sense of disconnect. A book that should have meant something to me, really sort of didn’t.

Beck is a beautiful told story, but it’s a story told at a distance and whilst some of that is incredibly justified and thematically appropriate, there’s very little chance to connect. It’s like sitting on a train and seeing beautiful scenery beyond the window but the train never stops. I couldn’t pinpoint the precise moment where Rosoff took over from Peet’s unfinished manuscript but I could tell a tone shift in the final quarter or so. The book becomes something quite different and problematic. Do I mean problematic? Yes, I think I do. I can’t comment on the representation of people in this book, and would direct you towards other and own voices to seek that veracity, but I can comment on structure and plot. And I found it problematic. The book sort of burns towards a point where you kind of think it will go off and do its own thing – a defiant unwillingness to conform – and I wanted that.

But then the fire goes out. Wet twigs on a smoking fire.

And that’s relevant for the story told here, but it doesn’t make a book. It really doesn’t.

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Evie’s Ghost : Helen Peters

Evie's GhostEvie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a story to tell you about this. I was chatting with one of my lovely librarian colleagues about the books I was going to review and mentioned ‘Evie’s Ghost’. It turned out that her daughter had adored Peters’ The Secret Hen House Theatre and had gone so far as to buy a copy of it for a friend for her birthday. Now that says a lot for me. I love children’s books, but I’m not a child. A recommendation from those ‘on the ground’, as it were, is an important and wonderful thing. I value them. Immensely. And so when I came to read Evie’s Ghost I was so pleased to see that Peters was worth it. This book, a sort of Tom’s Midnight Garden meets Charlotte Sometimes, is charming. Intensely.

Evie has been sent off to stay with her godmother whilst her mother has gone off on honeymoon with her new husband. Bearing in mind that Evie doesn’t know her godmother, at all, it’s all a bit awkward. However, the first night in the spare room changes everything. Evie goes to bed in the present-day and wakes up in 1814. She’s a housemaid, forced to scrub and clean and do thousand tasks whilst being painfully encouraged with the odd clip around the ear. But she’s gone back in time for a reason. Something awful is about to happen in this house and it’s up to Evie to solve it…

One of the great things about Peters’ writing is that she manages to juxtapose the everyday with the fantastical. You believe Evie’s journey between times, and you recognise her reaction. The sensibilities of a modern child, with running water and amenities, is neatly juxtaposed against the historical context of 1814 where quite a few things are different. There’s a lot of history and period terminology looped in this, and it’s handled really well. It’s a charming, pacy, rich adventure story. I rave a lot about the books that Nosy Crow produces but they have an eye for story. That transferable, rich, layered sense of story. Evie’s Ghost is such a solid and rich story. I read a lot for this age, and I’m always intrigued by those stories that catch me by surprise. This did, and I loved it. I also really welcomed how Peters … (view spoiler)

I love how I’m coming across some smart and genuine time-slip stories at the moment. Maybe this is the next thing? If they’re all as good and as well told as this, then I’ll be very happy.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy. Evie’s Ghost is out at the start of April.

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The Jamie Drake Equation : Christopher Edge

The Jamie Drake EquationThe Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about The Jamie Drake Equation. It’s not only a book that twists something quite classic and contemporary together, delivering a science fiction story driven by smartphones and astronaut dads, but it also sensitively and truthfully deals with what it’s like to be the family that’s left behind. How would it feel to see your Dad in space? And, more to the point, how does it feel and what can you do when something goes wrong?

The Jamie Drake Equation is presented beautifully. It is a good looking book, and it looks exciting. The lettering and the stars all hang suspended in the sky, and they shine. There’s something here instantly for those who are interested in space; everything about this book’s front cover is telling you to look upwards and towards the sky and the stars. The title is a constellation itself, the letters drawn between star points and oh, it’s clever and smart stuff.

Edge writes with an engaging and delightful competence. The Jamie Drake Equation is a spectacularly accessible read which, somehow, manages to juxtapose Fibonacci sequences with aliens with the realisation that whatever shape your family may take, it is still your family. I loved this. It’s so kind, and so well-structured, and just a great, fiercely satisfying read. Edge has it with these stories, he really does.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Orangeboy : Patrice Lawrence

OrangeboyOrangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Orangeboy is one of those books which begin a long time before you read it. Take a moment and look at that front cover, that stark brilliant splash of vibrant colour that spills against the white background. It is an amazing piece of design and, as I have said before, design speaks a lot about a book. From the perfectly pitched cover of Trouble through to pretty much anything published by Nosy Crow, design matters. It speaks of ambition and it speaks of power, of doing anything in your arsenal to make this book stand out and be read.

Marlon’s big brother, Andre, went down the wrong path and now, Marlon seems destined to follow him. But he’s fighting all the way, trying to figure out what’s happening to him and how – or indeed if – he can get out of it alive. There’s a line on the blurb that does somewhat give away the first twist, and I’d say ignore it if you can. Don’t read the back of this book, trust me, because when that first twist hits, it’s quite the moment.

I suspect that from the state of this tight and fluid and gutwrenching novel, that Lawrence has much more in her. The first book is always the first book, and sometimes it speaks of that. There are a few moments here where the narrative kind of outpaces itself, and then everything races to catch up. It’s true to life, painfully, but I’d have welcomed some time for the text to realise where it is. Breath. Shadows and light, loudness and dark. Lawrence is so very brilliant in this story and I wanted more time to bathe in the richness of her writing, the dense word-clouds of music and of pop culture references and of relationships, both good and bad. I suppose it’s selfish, really, to imagine a book should be written for my needs alone and yet books like this make me selfish. I want more of them. I didn’t want Orangeboy to end. Those dynamic, awful, hideous last few chapters where everything happened and couldn’t be stopped, made me stir the beans for my lunch with one hand and read with the other. It is the very definition of an unpotdownable book.

Marlon is forced to make choices throughout this novel, from a good life to a bad, and when history and relationships and love and loyalty and family come calling, he’s forced onto a path not of his choosing. It’s a hard read, Orangeboy, searing at times and yet, as I say, unputdownable because you can’t help but wonder what you’d have done in the circumstances. There’s a lot of opportunity here for discussion and several ‘discussion points’ are included at the back of the book.

I welcome Orangeboy. I think it’s important. I appreciate how it doesn’t make things easy, not once, not ever. That’s life for a lot of readers. I think it’s right to write about that. I think it’s even better to write about it as well as this.

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Horrible Bear! : Ame Dyckman & Zachariah OHora


Horrible Bear!Horrible Bear!
by Ame Dyckman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this vibrant and carefully pitched picture book. Horrible Bear! is the story of a girl who is out flying her kite one day. The string snaps and the kite falls into the cave of a very big and very sleepy bear. He’s asleep and, awfully, manages to roll over on top of her kite and crunch it. The little girl loses her temper and yells: “HORRIBLE BEAR!” She stomps home in that delightful full-body stomp of anger that small people do, and the bear is left to come to terms with what’s just happened. Naturally, he’s a bit upset as well and decides he’s going to be a HORRIBLE BEAR! Just as he’s leaving the cave and coming down the mountain to roar at the girl, the girl manages to break her beloved toy. Upon realising how horrible she’s been, she apologises to the bear who promptly helps her put her toy back together. Adorable, no? It’s a very charming and lovable story full with some pertinent and gently told messages.

When it comes to picture books, everything matters. Everything. There were two words that glared a little for me from the text because they didn’t feel quite as universal as I’d have liked. I know, I know, I can hear you commenting on how picky that is and it is a picky comment. But it’s a comment that comes from the nature of picture books and my love for them and my want for them to reach out to a whole world of readers and to do that with a whole fistful of meaning and weight in each and every word. There’s nowhere to hide in a picture book and it’s right to acknowledge the slight down notes in an otherwise wonderful book because everyone gets better, always, and Dyckman and OHara are rather wonderful already. The dynamic art of HORRIBLE BEAR! is testament to that, as is that subtly written note of regret on the part of the girl. It’s easy to judge in books like this, to get all high-handed and moralistic, but Dyckman reins it back. Her language is precise, kind and subtle. It’s a great line to walk and one that speaks of a great understanding of children and of learning.

Where HORRIBLE BEAR! absolutely shines is in its use of detail. This isn’t a story that forgets what’s happened to concentrate on the next page. It begins on the title page, where underneath the dedications from author and illustrator, a small girl with vibrant red hair sees the string on her kite snap. And then we’re in, pounding through a story where the bear sleeps with a little tiny teddy bear of his own, and when the girl gets back into her bedroom, we can see the bear coming out of his cave up the mountain through the window in her room. It’s so utterly lovely and smart that I can get picky with this book. I can get picky because it’s so vividly on point at certain moments that I want all of it to be up there, reaching the great heights of storytelling that it has the potential to do. This is vivid, exuberant, eccentric, and kind work. HORRIBLE BEAR! is rather wonderful. Just don’t forget that exclamation mark!

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

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Fish Boy : Chloe Daykin

Fish BoyFish Boy by Chloe Daykin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this determined novel from Daykin. Fish Boy, her first book for middle grade readers, sings of something very peculiar and very distinct. Billy Shiel is a boy with a lot on his mind. Some of that centres on his mother’s mysterious illness, some of that centres on his troubles at school where he’s not really managing to cope and so he swims in the sea and listens to David Attenborough and somehow, manages to keep going. Just. But then everything changes when a new boy starts at school and a mackerel swims up to Billy and starts to talk to him…

It’s a delightful book to sum up because it is so resolutely what it is. The episodes between Billy and the mackerel sing of something so resolutely other and unknown that there’s a temptation to tie it off with a precise explanation. This, I’m pleased to note, is something Daykin resists and I applaud that. The world has space for mystery and for doubt and this book sings of that edge in between knowing and unknowing. Fact. Fiction. Sometimes it’s very hard to parse the world when you’re under a lot of pressure. It’s even harder to do that when you’re dealing with unknown and unnamed illnesses, as Billy and his family are.

I like this. I like Daykin’s fragmentary and determinedly restrained prose. It’s shard-like at points; jagged, bare-boned paragraphs that consist of maybe one word or two and even then, you’re not sure you wholly know who’s speaking or where the language is coming from. Magic. Mystery. Mackerels. Even writing that makes me smile. Give Fish Boy to those readers who love David Almond but also Micheal Morpurgo where he’s at his more magical. There’s something rather beautiful about this stubborn, pointed, eccentric and utterly vivid novel. I really hope it swims.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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