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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The Secret Of the Old Clock : Carolyn Keene

The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew, #1)The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to consider just how old this series is now. The Secret of the Old Clock, the first in the mythic Nancy Drew series, was originally published in 1930 with a substantial revision in 1959. That’s a fair while, even for me who quite enjoys the more ancient side of children’s literature. Yet this edition of The Secret of The Old Clock is fresh, breezy and reads rather as if it could have been written yesterday. There’s still a space for this ferociously girl-positive novel, even when you pause to consider and dissect its Blytonian morals and broad paintbrush approach to society’s morals.

Nancy Drew herself is a delightfully persistent girl with nothing better to do than wander around and solve mysteries, and occasionally deliver papers to her father’s clients. She’s one of those characters that makes a thousand points of sense within a book and yet, outside of it, is so rampantly confusing that you can’t quite figure out where to begin. But you believe her, and this book takes you with her, every step along the way. Yes, The Secret of The Old Clock blithely trots from crisis to crisis and Nancy skips from problem to resolution without barely messing up her hair, but you do not stop reading. It’s kind of fascinating to realise how purely, vividly readable this book still is.

As I said earlier, there’s a space for Nancy Drew in the contemporary world of children’s literature and that space is this: alongside Robin Stevens, Clementine Beauvais, Katherine Woodfine, because Nancy is still awesome. Horrendous, too, in a myriad of ways, but underneath it all, still pretty fabulous.

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When Dimple Met Rishi : Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met RishiWhen Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Dimple Met Rishi is a ferociously charming book. It’s also a book I heard about on social media and so, I suspect, might be my reposte to those critics who think that book-talk on social media is the death of everything they hold dear. People talk about books, freely, fascinatingly, and that talk is driven by emotion. In the case of When Dimple Met Rishi, it was a talk that sang of love, all the while accompanied by that cover, that rich, beautiful cover.

And I’m always a little nervous because I don’t want to be the person who, for want of a better phrase, shouts against such a loving discourse. Like what you wish, talk about what you wish, and if you’ve read the book, if you’ve participated in the world, if you’ve quizzed your reaction as much as the thing that you’re reacting too, then fine. Your perspective is warranted, welcome. Necessary, really.

When Dimple Met Rishi is delightful. It is a book that more than easily stands up to the discourse around it, and more so, drives it through having such a genuinely beautiful, eloquent and passionate narrative that slides out from its pages, easy as air. This is a good book. It’s a very charming, distinct, book, which tells a very beautiful, very empathetic love story.

Dimple Shah and Rishi Patel. They’re both attending the same summer school programme for coders, and they are part of a “suggested arrangement”. That is to say, they’re part of an arranged marriage. Rishi, a wild romantic, is on board. Dimple, slightly less so…

When Dimple Met Rishi tracks the development of this relationship; unabashedly so, and it’s just lovely. There’s a slightly fumbly last few pages as Menon brings all of the threads together but really, the threads are so gorgeous and you’re so invested at that point that it’s easy to let that slide and just will them all to get together.

The other thing to note about Menon’s style is that it’s very quietly frank. She moves from discussing a group of ‘Aberzombies’ to theistic semantics, and does so in a tone that is very well handled, sympathetic, and also intensely welcome. In a way, I can’t recommend When Dimple Met Rishi enough really, as it’s such a quietly multi-faceted piece, full of an intense, vibrant heart and what’s not to love about that? It is a good book.

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Listen to the Baby Animals : Marion Billet

Listen to the Baby AnimalsListen to the Baby Animals by Marion Billet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I need to tell you a little bit about this book that, I suspect, might appeal quite immensely to the adults amongst you who have Suffered From Noisy Book Syndrome. Come on, we all know what I mean. Those books that children adore – and rightfully so – but that you’re quite tempted to flush down the toilet after the 365th tinny repetition of ‘Jingle Bells’.

THIS BOOK HAS AN ON AND OFF SWITCH.

IT IS HIDDEN BEHIND A PANEL THAT IS ACCESSIBLE ONLY TO ADULTS AND THEIR DEXTEROUS DRIVEN BY NECESSITY AND AN URGE TO PRESERVE THEIR SANITY FINGERS.

Like, what an amazing thing is that? It’s pretty much the interactive board book equivalent of inventing the wheel and I love it, ferociously, because it’s a gesture towards the parents as much as it is to the children. This isn’t just to turn the noise off; how much of a Gandalf will you look when you turn the noise on? Clever design benefits everyone, and Nosy Crow are so on the ball with this. Immensely.

I wouldn’t be writing this fulsome review of a book based solely on a switch, brilliant as it is, because the book itself needs to stand up and be worthy of interest in its own right. I think sometimes, especially with this age group, we can rely on tricks and *jazz hands*, and the story element itself gets neglected. Luckily enough, Marion Billet has done something quite intensely charming here. It’s a simple journey through a series of scenes, each of which introduces a baby animal with their parent, and the artwork is charming. Round-edged, thick, blunt colours, and a gentle prompt for the reader to encourage interaction.

This is delightful all the way through, from Billet’s fat and thick use of colour, through to the sounds – actually real life yips from puppies and cheeps from chicks (no tinny nonsense here!). I’d also direct you to Billet’s Listen To The Birdswhich features actual recordings of nightingale song and sort of blew my mind a little bit.

I could write about board books like this forever.

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Collecting Sticks : Joe Decie

Collecting SticksCollecting Sticks by Joe Decie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was at a conference the other day where talk turned to the idea of ‘kindness’ and how writing can give an opportunity for emotions to be expressed another way. To shine a light into the darkness. It’s a complex idea and one that I suspect I’m going to be unpicking for a while, but what stuck with me was that idea of kindness. I have been moving closer to it for a while now, seeking it particularly in the children’s books I work with but also elsewhere. That acknowledgement that the world is a complex and challenging and intimidating space and that we are just people trying to do our best in it. Kindness. It’s hard to find in a book, hard to consciously seek it, but when you find it, you find a fat and rich and genuine warmth that sings of love and hope and belief in people in all of their foolish and idiosyncratic ways. Kindness.

And so I came to Collecting Sticks by Joe Decie, a comic book that I’d seen reviewed elsewhere and ordered at the library as a consequence (reviews! they work! colour me stunned!). It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I loved it. It’s a slender, elegant visual note, rendered in a black and white wash and wry notes and asides towards the reader. It’s autobiographical, covering a glamping trip undertaken by Decie’s family, but rather deliciously global in the same way; Decie focuses on the moments at the heart of his panels and lets the white space of the page or the quietly focused background of the panel provide that universal backdrop that means these moments of family and conversation could, perhaps, be in your house right now. It’s delicately done and all rather wonderful.

Seek this out if you’re a little tired with the world, or if you’re looking for something to remind you of the intense potential of people. Collecting Sticks has such a delightful warm rhythm to it that it beats with family life, of closeness and of love. It’s eccentric, funny, and self-conscious, and it’s full of utterly delightful beats. And it is full of kindness. Warmth. Empathy. Love.

This is a beautiful, beautiful little book.

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I Have No Secrets : Penny Joelson

I Have No SecretsI Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this potent and markedly well-told thriller, not in the least the vibrant delight that is the narrator Jemma. Unable to communicate, yet possessed of a quick-thinking and fiercely distinct personality, Jemma now needs to communicate more than ever. Somebody has been murdered – and somebody’s confessed to Jemma that they did it.

Much of the strength of this book comes from Jemma; she’s a delight. Funny, warm and brave, she’s the centre of her foster family and the secrets that they hold. She witnesses her foster siblings fight their own battles, and upon the news of a personal revelation for herself, she starts to take some immense steps towards independence. It’s difficult to not root for her; She’s so well-drawn and convincing that I Have No Secrets races by.

I was in a bit of a reading dip before this, having just read a ton of things with hideous opening chapters, but I couldn’t put this down. Isn’t that cliche? Yet all cliches come from fact and in the case of I Have No Secrets it’s true. I couldn’t put it down. It was refreshing, and sort of wonderful even in how it dealt with some very dark and complex issues. To put the murder itself aside, both Olivia and Ben, Jemma’s foster-siblings, face some complex troubles of their own.

Thematically, it’s a little Wonder and a little Jacqueline Wilson, and as much as it pains me to do that compare and contrast thing, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise with this book because it’s in doing that sort of comparative analysis that you realise how this book is something furiously singular, immensely readable and something quite valuable indeed.

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Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 : Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a delight.

The second of two boarding school histories that I’ve breezed through recently, Terms & Conditions is an absolute delight. The first – Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class was a much more different experience, focusing as it did upon the male experience of boarding school life and wrapping this around his own experiences. I found Stiff Upper Lip a dry read; interesting, yet I skipped over a substantial chunk of it.

Terms & Conditions, however, wasn’t anywhere near long enough. I loved it. I devoured it. I suspect my different reaction to the two books is partially due to my own research interests and angle of interest, yet Maxtone Graham writes with a sheer verve and narrative drive that can’t be denied. This is an honest, warm-hearted, genuine and sympathetic book.

Ending just before the popular arrival of the ‘duvet’, that blessed piece of night-time warmth, Maxtone Graham ranges through a series of tightly structured chapters constructed around the recollections of her interviewees. Being a big children’s literature fan, I was delighted to find that Judith Kerr functioned among these. What’s great is that Maxtone Graham admires these women that she works with and talks to, and she admires them openly. It’s so interesting to me, this complex ideal of the boarding school woman – of women, generally – because as they grow older, they are expected to be less visible. Less forthright. Yet as Maxtone Graham comes to articulate, these are the women that have remarkable stories – ranging from being pummeled outside in the dark as part of a new girl ritual, through to spending the night on the Kings Road with boys and making it back to the convent school in time for morning. I welcome anybody who works to make these stories visible, I really really do.

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