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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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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Girl Online – Going Solo : Zoe Sugg

Girl Online Going Solo (Girl Online, #3)Girl Online Going Solo by Zoe Sugg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This, the third in Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg’s series of young adult novels, solidified something for me. I’ve written about her her work before, and about the frustrating tendency for the media to leap onto her as a scapegoat for all that is wrong with the world in a literary sense. And so here I am at the third in her series about blogger Penny, and I have reaffirmed some thoughts for myself. These are generous and warm-hearted novels and I am glad that they exist.

Girl Online : Going Solo sees Penny come to terms with living her life and facing the world alone. What’s really joyous is that this book doesn’t shy away from the nature of young adult independence and the pitfalls of that. Penny experiences panic attacks, anxiety and the great sudden joy of making new friends and finding her place within the world. Underneath all of this are some nice and quietly handled moments of social commentary.

These are great books, genuinely, because they do what they do very well. There’s an almost palpable sense of wearing their heart on their sleeve and I like that. There’s a place in the world for books that do that, and I think the Girl : Online series does it immensely well. We speak a lot of the importance of voice as readers and writers; of knowing the way you want to say something and understanding the import of how that it’s said. And that’s where these books shine; they are palpably approachable, genuine and kind.

And I like that.

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Wing Jones : Katherine Webber

Wing JonesWing Jones by Katherine Webber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the first things to note about Wing Jones is the beautiful production values that surround it. There’s a lot to be said for noting how people publish a novel. A lot of them exist in the world. A lot. How do you make yours stand out? How do you make yours sing of the faith and the hours and the money and the love that you have poured into it? In the case of Wing Jones, it’s a dynamic cover and some beautiful ombre page edges that shift from pink through to purple and oh, it’s beautiful. It says so much when publishers do this sort of thing because the book itself, it becomes something a little bit more eye-catching, a little bit prouder, a little bit more determined to make its mark.

And Wing Jones does, immensely. It’s the story of Wing Jones who doesn’t easily fit in. She has one grandmother from China and another from Ghana, and knows the problems of figuring out who you are in the world first hand. Her brother, Marcus, though, he’s working it out a lot easier than her. But then something terrible happens and it’s down to Wing to figure out who she is all by herself, save for the help of a magical dragon and lioness who come to her in the night. It’s a fiercely contemporary novel which deals with some stark issues and yet, there’s that touch of magical realism to it. A poetic of space, somehow, that twists the world that Wing’s in and makes it something else. Something that she can control. Something that she can run in.

It’s Webber’s debut novel this and there were a few moments where I’d have liked it being crafted in a slightly different manner, but I say this in the light of the great achievement that this book is. I am picky, undoubtedly so, because I think Webber’s quite remarkable with her language and oh, how I want more of that. She writes with a cadence that I’ve not found for a while, a sort of musical rhythm to her paragraphs, twists of languages and sudden symphonic sentences. And that, is perhaps more than anything, the reason I recommend Wing Jones. Webber’s language, her ability to craft a world that is rarely written of, and her ability to make that sing, utterly, and to make it beat like the pounding of your first-fallen-in-love-heart is quite something. Wing Jones is good. Extremely. Utterly. But I suspect Webber’s next book might be even more so.

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Margot and Me : Juno Dawson

Margot & MeMargot & Me by Juno Dawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s hard to write through tears and yet, here I am, pushing through and trying to capture what makes Margot and Me so rather utterly wonderful. It is wonderful. I have written a thousand sentences trying to capture the nuances of this beautiful and heartfelt novel and I don’t think I’m anywhere near capturing it.

But I will try, and it starts with how Dawson understands character. She writes thick and fat and full and round people, believable people, understandable people, and this book is one that it’s hard to step away from. I love it. I love Dawson’s writing and how she crafts something so perfectly nuanced and, when it needs to be, kind.

Margot and Me is a split narrative between present day, where Fliss and her mother have moved to her grandmother’s farm in Wales, and the second world war diaries of her grandmother. Fliss’ mother is recuperating from chemotherapy and the farm stay is to help her recover. But Fliss’ grandmother, the redoubtable Margot, is not the easiest person to live with. It is only when Fliss discovers Margot’s WW2 diaries and starts reading them that she comes to figure out a few things about her…

Margot and Me inhabits a very distinct ground and it owns that ground so clearly and distinctly and so brightly and so perfectly. Think of the perfect A Little Love Song, think of Carrie’s War, think of The Other Way Round, and you’ll have an idea where this ferociously contemporary and deeply sensitive and nuanced book is. It hybridises that second world war story of growing up in extraordinary times with a consciousness that life, living, whatever time it is, is complex and troublesome and hard and a story that is needing to be told.

And I am still crying over the way it so, so perfectly does that.

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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