Stories For Boys Who Dare To Be Different – Ben Brooks

Stories for Boys Who Dare to be DifferentStories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have promised to be, above all things, honest in the reviews that I write and so it’s for that reason that I must confess that I wanted to dislike this a lot more than I did. These books at the moments for rebel girls and boys who dare to be different conceptually bother me; they speak to ideas of gender in children’s literature, for this is what this is, really, and they speak to the state of those ideas being in a somewhat complicated and, perhaps, quite a troubled space. And, because I am somebody rooted in the classics of British children’s literature, it seems to all stem from the mid-twentieth century and the notions we have of girls and of boys in the books of that second golden age that still so heavily comes to influence the state of children’s literature today.

And yet, and yet –

That strapline bothered me. Boys who changed the world without killing dragons? It’s so specific, so madly, utterly, wilfully specific in tone that by perpetuating said tone, that surely it perpetuates a myth of masculinity that the book itself is trying to defy –

And yet, and yet –

That title. Why stories for boys who dare to be different. Different from what? Why is it daring? The transgressive act only becomes transgressive when rendered as such; perhaps this should be a form of normalcy that we should be trying to understand as such. Surely in making something the other, we perpetuate that otherness –

And yet, this isn’t a bad book. To be frank, it’s actually pretty good.

But I still have questions to resolve, and I will resolve them and I will do so with the full and frank acknowledgement that this is a good, kind and thoughtfully constructed book. It is representative, inclusive and frequently moving, encompassing characters such as Nicholas Winton, Taika Waititi and Lionel Messi. There’s elements of it still to challenge, and on fully legitimate circumstances and not ‘grumpy scholarly’ circumstances. Louis Braille is included and yet there’s no acknowledgement of the fact that much of his entry cannot be read by those he sought to help. Similarly, the entry for Junot Diaz suffers from recent events, and I was concerned by some of the looser rhetoric involved in other entries such as “It’s time to take their country back”. That’s a problematic phrase, not in the least for its implicit politicking, and it’s a phrase that, really, means very little. And sure, a very young reader might not pick up on that angle, but they’ll pick up on the language. The phrasing. And it’s that sort of thing in this book that matters and should be fought over, fiercely.

These books are having a moment and I welcome the effort that Brooks has done towards making his contribution a pretty damn good book. I suspect much of its problems come from the hobbles of frame and circumstance, and that I’m maybe demanding a lot of it that perhaps it can’t quite achieve in such a context. And yet, I’m unapologetic in doing so because these books – as evidenced by their raw and fierce popularity – are clearly needed. I just ache for them to, somehow, become something more than what they are at present.

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Clean : Juno Dawson

CleanClean by Juno Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The versatility of Dawson never fails to astound me. She is a writer who imbues a sense of truth into everything that she does, and this is no exception. Clean is a beautiful book. It really is, because Dawson manages to twist all of the pain and anger and fear and sadness into something honest and truthful and human. That underneath it all, we’re all still people. We’re all still somebody and sometimes finding that somebody, that essence of truth, is the hardest thing to do. This book is full of truth, but also of sympathy. Being human isn’t easy. It’s not pretty. But it is achievable, someway, somehow.

Rich socialite and it girl, Lexi Volkov is forced into rehab after a near-overdose. It’s time to get clean and to face up to her demons. As she gets to know herself, and her fellow inmates, she starts to realise just who she really is. And who she’s going to be.

Reminiscent of Melvin Burgess at his fiery best, this is an unsparing and unafraid book. It touches on some challenging issues, uses some challenging language, and yet does it all in a justified and straightforward manner. Dawson’s not working for shock value here, but rather for a kaleidoscopic truth. Lexi isn’t the most likable of characters at times, and yet, in a way, that made me like her even more. It’s easy to root for the people who have failings, and for the authors who allow these failings to be shown. It’s human, and I like writers and books that are able to acknowledge the truth of that experience.

I also have to add a note of praise for the Quercus design team. This is an outstanding front cover. Absolutely, so.

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Wave : Suzy Lee

WaveWave by Suzy Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable and show-stopping thing, let down only by the printing format itself. Lee’s art is a delicious joy, telling the story of a girl on a visit to the beach. It’s wordless throughout and delivered in a simple, clean palette of blacks and whites and blues, and it’s beautiful. You can see some pictures in this tweet and really, it’s the moments of this book that make it what it is. That sheer, wild pleasure of stamping in water; of teasing the edge with your toes before jumping fully into it; of being soaked, suddenly, beyond your imagination, before you can quite realise what’s happening. It is lovely and it’s very, deliciously primal. Wave is a book that speaks to that child that we all have inside of us, and I would pay quite happily to have prints of it on my wall. The vibrancy, the sheer truth of Lee’s art is inescapable.

As I said however, the book is let down by the printing and the relationship between the artwork and the gutter. The gutter is a pivotal space within picture books, providing as it does a space for innovative acts of storytelling but also for training children to understand the shape of books, and the pattern of reading itself.

In Wave, the gutter is too tightly bound or the dimensions of the artwork are off or something, because certain parts of the image get caught up in the gutter and lost or cut-off. The girl, for example, loses part of a limb at one point, whilst the delicious edge of the wave, with its kaleidoscopic edge of fragmented blue, is stopped bluntly by the gutter. I can see some point for that in some spreads, to emphasise the barrier between the girl and the wave – the distance – but in others, the gutter forms a heavy handed truncation of what might be a perfect, endless book.

Wave thus becomes a bit of an oddity, where the raw, distinct beauty of the book and its utterly perfect grasp of the ‘moment’ becomes tied back by this gutter problem, becomes bound by something heavy and solid and blunt. It is an undeniable recommendation nonetheless because Lee’s artwork is beautiful. Utterly, utterly beautiful.

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The Positively Last Performance : Geraldine McCaughrean

The Positively Last PerformanceThe Positively Last Performance by Geraldine McCaughrean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some authors who have this fierce richness about them when they work. They tell story; words that run together and layer something wonderfully thick and dense about you and you don’t quite know what’s happening until you finish it and realise that that was good. Geraldine McCaughrean is one of those authors and The Positively Last Performance is a classy, classic sort of tale.

The Royal Theatre at Seashaw now only plays to ghosts; the humans are long gone, and the theatre is not what it was. One day, a stubborn little girl and her parents arrive at the Royal; Gracie and her Mum and Dad are there to bring it back to its former life. Whilst Gracie makes friends with the ghosts, her parents try to restore the theatre…

Inspired by the Margate, and the theatre there, this is a book that both renders that sense of place superbly but also catches the peculiar joy and sadness of the British seaside. There’s love here, for both what was and what is, but also a recognition that these resorts face complex lives and hold complex, wonderful people. There’s a lot in this book and I don’t think it quite lets you see this until you’re well into it. You have to work past the slightly brittle opening, the defence of rhythm and chapter, until it lets you see the truth of it.

People, really, people. McCaughrean is interested in people, the shape of them and the stories of them, and what happens when they mingle and touch on lives that are not their own. As Gracie gets to know the ghosts and their stories, she learns about the black and white minstrels, mods, artists and librarians who lived and worked in Seashaw. One thing to note is that the n- word does make an appearance in the book (particularly when relating to issues of blackface) but is challenged, rebuked and analysed appropriately. It did stick out for me though, so it’s worthwhile mentioning and taking note of.

I was concerned about this getting repetitive (the rhythm of ghost – backstory – ghost – backstory) but then there’s a sudden, wrenching, movement in the middle of the book that turns all of that on its head. It’s beautifully, horribly, done and the sign of a writer who is simply just very good at what she does. I liked this a lot. I devoured it.

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The Arrival : Shaun Tan

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It hit me recently that I’d never reviewed this, this story of eloquence and love and shadows, and that was something I had to make right. The Arrival holds a difficult place in my heart in that, I think, I read it too soon. Too blindly. Too hungry for words and language and precision. Reading can be selfish, sometimes. You can ache to remake the text in your vision, to dominate it with your perspective and views, and thus deny the value of the read itself. We read for others. We read for otherness, for voice, and for echoes to map our lives against, and sometimes I don’t do that. Sometimes I can get a little lost, and need to step back, and remind myself that this is not my story. I do not own this text. I am a reader. I own my reading of that, but I do not own the other.

And so I came back to Shaun Tan, drawn in part by a political and pervasive rhetoric that seems to seek division where there is none to be found, but also because of the stillness of that front cover. It made me understand what I had done to this book before, and it make me realise how I needed to approach it now. I look at a lot of books as part of my job, and stillness is not something you see that often on a front cover. Yet, as I look at it now, I can see that it’s not still. That it’s a moment, an encounter, and this is a split second point between it. Stillness in movement; being able to capture that precise, delicate, beauty where the two of them meet eyes and properly see each other? Beautiful. Perhaps, too, the essence of this book. The encounter where things become Things, and Known, and Named.

So, the book itself. It is wordless, split into six “chapters”. I say “chapters”, because honestly, imposing an idea of sequence on this poetic narrative seems difficult. It is linear, but it’s also not; the story of people coming to a new land, forming connections, but also what came before and after, the stories that thread through us on a daily basis, the web of connection that is life, I suppose, just living and being and loving. Moments. Beats. The dance of your heart and the stillness that comes when you find home.

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A Change Is Gonna Come

A Change Is Gonna ComeA Change Is Gonna Come

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Change Is Gonna Come is a compilation of short stories and poems from 12 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, ranging freely over a series of topics and themes, and pretty much all of them are rather wonderful, powerful contributions. What really struck me about this collection is the care that’s been taken over every element in it; from the striking and wonderful cover design (for more on that, have a look at this, to the note in the introduction from the editorial mentee (a good thing, publishing world), and the inclusion of debut writers, A Change Is Gonna Come feels like it’s been loved. And that sensation of love is powerful when it slides into the hand of the reader, so very powerful.

A frank highlight for me was Tanya Byrne’s lyrical and incandescent love story ‘Hackney Moon’. Byrne is a writer whose debut Heart-Shaped Bruise was something I called kind of spectacular, and Hackney Moon is right up there. An aching, tender, and fiercely told love story, it’s honestly, one of the best things I’ve read for a long time. I finished reading it and did one of those little ‘oh that was good’ pauses. (Don’t you love them?)

Another highlight for me was Aisha Bushby’s ‘Marionette Girl’, a distinctive, eccentric and powerful story of growth. Bushby’s writing is sympathetic and kind, but also full of a very subtle sense of drive. The sense of a character pushing up against barriers all around her mixed with the knowledge that she’s going to break through. Does that make sense? I hope it does. This is a story full of drive and determination and power, and it’s kind of heartbreaking and beautiful, all at once.

What a way to start the year this is!

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The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage : Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to review this book so, forgive me if I take a while to get to the point. If I’m honest, I’m not wholly sure as to why I didn’t like this and I’m not sure that that dislike comes from me, as opposed to the text itself. Like I said; difficult.

Let’s do the formal bit first. This is a prequel to the events of Northern Lights. There’s a boy and a girl and a baby named Lyra. Things happen; characters make cameos, and I am left ferociously whelmed by the whole experience. (“I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you just be…. whelmed?” “I think you can in Europe.”)

If I’m honest, and these reviews are the space to be so, La Belle Sauvage is a solid adventure story that tastes of Peter Ransome and Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell and that’s about the all of it. That is not to say that these are bad references to pick up on, because they are the very opposite of it. Ibbotson and Rundell and Ransome are totemic and magnificent, and to participate in that space on an even keel is a marvellous and beautiful thing.

There’s some hints of something else too in this book, even though the last third feels like a different book altogether (and I wonder, so much, at that structure), and the wilderness of Pullman’s power sometimes makes itself known with ferocious strength, but as a whole this book lacks something of the raw tenderness that his work can achieve. Is that an oxymoron? Can tenderness be raw? I’m not sure, but I know that it’s the best way to describe it. This universe of daemons and witches allows it. Longs for it, sometimes. You share the deepest part of yourself with somebody else, and have the pain and the ecstasy all at once. La Belle Sauvage doesn’t quite connect, somehow, and it might do in the following books, it might find its space in its wild and wonderful world, but right now it feels anticlimactic. It doesn’t feel like the book it should be.

I was also concerned at the shaping given to many of the characters here and indeed, even in writing that, I have to stop and choose my words carefully. What am I trying to say? I think I am trying to say that I loved Malcolm and his heart, but I did not like certain aspects of how the characters were constructed. Perhaps that comes from spending the last few years embedded in books that talk about girlhood and womanhood, but I ache somewhat when women perform the role of caregiver and when girls become romantic pawns – and have this element of their characters be not treated as powerful. Does that make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I wonder if, in a way, I’m writing this review too soon. But then again, when can you write a review? Sometimes I write about a book the moment I finish it because I’m hungry and giddy and mad with love, and sometimes I wait and try to let the thoughts settle in my head.

And now that I have done that, we are here and I am left with this : I think this book could have been better and I am still not sure how I feel about that.

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