Ottoline Goes To School : Chris Riddell

Ottoline Goes to School (Ottoline, #2)Ottoline Goes to School by Chris Riddell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s very easy for somebody who reads a lot of books to miss an author. And yet, equally, it’s also very easy to have a consciousness of who and what that author is and how they do what they do. This is where I stood with Chris Riddell; conscious that I hadn’t really read much of his work, but conscious that his work was good. And I’d come to that decision for a variety of reasons, not just for the quality of his art work which burns from his books like fire, but also because of the children I knew who pretty much swallowed each and everything he’d published. Sometimes the biggest thing for me, as an adult who’s involved in children’s literature, is to step back and recognise my position as a guest in this space. And if an author’s work is devoured, furiously, hungrily, then that’s an important thing to take note of.

I picked up Ottoline Goes To School after Chris had delivered a charming and annoyingly inspiring lecture at Homerton College. I didn’t possess the persistence or elbows to get to the bookshop first and grab the sumptuous Travels with my Sketchbook which I’ve had my eyes on for a while, but Ottoline Goes To School was an appropriate, and by no means secondary, choice. I was intrigued to see what Riddell did with the school story because they are sort of my thing. And when I got it signed by him, I did my traditional slightly incoherent stare and babble because that too, is also my sort of thing.

This, the second of the Ottoline series, is a delight. Ottoline is off to the Alice. B. Smith School For The Differently Gifted; a boarding school for children with a special an often quite peculiar gift. As she’s trying to figure out what her gift might be, a ghost starts to haunt the school…

I was trying to figure out the best way to describe this lovely book and the idea I kept coming back to was cleanliness. That’s perhaps a little bit of an odd phrase to use and one, I suspect, which doesn’t crop up in children’s literature criticism that often so let me explain a bit more about what I mean.

Ottoline Goes To School is one of those books that balances word with image and does so without compromising the integrity of each. In fact, it’s so beautifully and carefully balanced, this mediation between the visual and the textual, that every page is a delight. And it’s challenging too! Whilst Ottoline is engaged in the complexities of a new school and a Slightly Tremulous New Friendship, Mr Munroe is carefully scouting out the school and trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s the cleanliness, right there, that ability to balance and deliver whole, heartfelt, narrative in word and image without compromising or pressing on the space of the other elements within the spread. This book is so clean, so crisp and sharp, that it’s a joy.

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Here I Stand : Amnesty International UK

Here I StandHere I Stand by Amnesty International UK

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this pained, poised collection of short stories and much of that comes from its careful and classy curation. The authors, ranging from Frances Hardinge through to Sarah Crossan, and Chris Riddell, sit alongside a foreword by a human rights lawyer and an afterword, of sorts, consisting of an interview with Chelsea Manning. Most contributions to the collection have a brief afterwood explaining the context behind the piece, though one of the strongest – ‘Barley Wine’ by Kevin Brooks doesn’t have one and I wonder if it’s actually stronger without such. That brief quibble aside, this is a smart collection and one which hits home, immensely.

‘Here I Stand’ has the subtitle of ‘Stories That Speak For Freedom’, and covers a wide range of topics including genital mutilation, human trafficking, terrorism and racism. An obvious caveat applies around the element of trigger warnings here, but as I recommend with every book of this nature, read it yourself and use it sympathetically and with an eye towards being led by the relevant child’s response. Books like this offer such a valuable spotlight on those issues which often don’t get spotlit and when carefully and considerately mediated, that spotlight can often be revelatory.

I don’t want to speak of highlights here because somehow this doesn’t feel appropriate, but rather I want to look at those pieces which sang out for me. The collection is immensely powerful, but as I said previously, Kevin Brooks’ contribution was something quite remarkable. Ditto ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ from Chibundo Onuzo, a story on the topic of child soldiers, which instead of taking the more expected motifs of its theme delivers something quite astounding. This is the gift of collections like this, the gift of perspective. Sight. A new eye on the familiar. Sometimes stories do become familiar and thus unseen; to deny that familiarity is a great thing. Onuzo’s bare, pained eloquence here speaks volumes.

I like this volume, and I like the careful craft that lays behind it, from Chris Riddell’s beautiful artwork through to the stories, poems, and especially the graphic contribution from Mary and Bryan Talbot with Kate Charlesworth. I think it’s important to recognise that stories, particularly of this nature, aren’t just these neat things tied up in bows and that embrace of diverse form is another point in Here I Stand. It’s a tired phrase to call something important, but then again, so many of the books being published at the moment are. Here I Stand stands firmly with those, and indeed manages to carve a space of its very own.

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Looking for Enid : Duncan McLaren

Looking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid BlytonLooking for Enid: The Mysterious and Inventive Life of Enid Blyton by Duncan McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is possibly the strangest and yet, maybe, one of the most brilliant biographies of an author I’ve ever read. It’s an approach that I don’t think would have worked for anybody but Enid Blyton and so, perhaps, the unorthodoxy of Looking For Enid was always destined to work when its subject was such a furiously unorthodox figure herself.

Looking For Enid sets out to discover the truth behind the myth. Enid Blyton for me has always been one of those authors who controlled her brand. Image was all, irrespective of that which went on behind the scenes. The most immediate example of this is her utobiography, The Story Of My Life which still remains one of the most audaciously artificial texts I have ever read. Enid didn’t – doesn’t – give away her truth easily.

Yet Enid Blyton is an author we all know, and much of that’s due to the cultural shorthands that now, rightfully or wrongfully, surround her name. A ferociously readable writer, possessed of an almost Sisyphean urge to write, she produced bluntly workmanlike narratives that often denied elegance but could be read. Undoubtedly, those narratives are also often coloured of problematic social, gender and ethical characteristics, and I don’t deny nor seek to excuse that. I’m not a fan of Blyton (though I’ll fight the corner for Malory Towers and St Clare’s to be considered as expressions of feminine potential within a society designed to not recognise such), but I do find both the author and the reach her work still has upon British children’s literature utterly fascinating. I’d never heard of Looking For Enid and so was intrigued to see what

Looking For Enid visits locations connected with Blyton; Beaconsfield, Beckenham and Bourne End, with a sort of madly ecccentric metafictive fanfiction element in which the Five Find-Outers attempt to solve the mystery of Enid Blyton’s lost books and in which McLaren slightly Mary-Sue’s himself into the role of Fatty. Along the way, you learn perhaps a little bit too much about uteruses (seriously) and McLaren’s sex life (honestly) and a lot to do with carp (I’m not making any of this up). There’s a lot of Freudian-esque reading into the subtext of Blyton’s work, which, to be frank, always makes me slightly jaded. You look hard enough, you can read a phallus into everything.

Plus the uterus business, really.

But I’m still giving this four stars, and that comes from a recognition of this book’s mad brilliance. It’s infuriating, yes, and could do with stepping away from the socratic exposition that McLaren does tend to engage in with his partner, but it’s sort of fabulous and vividly unique. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this that is so – madly honest – about what it’s like to be a fan, and to love something, and to also just want to find out more. Looking For Enid certainly concludes by finding her; I’m not sure that it’s my Enid, but I do know that the ride towards that point is kind of unforgettable. Mad, weird, totally bizarre, and a bit super odd at points, but also, sort of brilliant.

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A Wrinkle In Time : Hope Larson, adap. Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic NovelA Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of books in the world I haven’t read (she says, channeling Franco Moretti) and one of them is A Wrinkle in Time. I’ve a strange antipathy towards classics, and fantastical classics tend to slide towards the bottom of that pile of antipathy. I’m mixing my metaphors quite hideously here, but generally I don’t head towards the classics and I head towards the fantasy classics even less. Some of that stems from the fact that I don’t tend to read much fantasy, and also from the fact that I’m a selfish reader. Honestly, I am. I talk a lot about books and I love books in a furious, forever sort of manner, but sometimes I want to have my reaction be my own. And the classics, in particular, are coloured so very much by what they come to stand for, that sometimes reading them can feel like a futile act. How do you read something when everybody’s already read it for you? It’s for reasons like this that I have a mad sympathy with any child who’s told to stop reading what they want and to instead read what an adult thinks they read. Ten books you should read by the age of ten? Bite me. Eternally.

I’ve been very aware of A Wrinkle In Time for a while without quite knowing the details of what it was. Something to do with something about space, and time, and that was about it. I didn’t really want to read it, but I wanted to read Larson’s adaptation of it. It caught my eye in the bookshop and I was feeling flush. The colours intrigued me; a palette of blues, greys, blacks. Colours of twilight and the thin grey dawn. And so I read it, and then I loved it, and I wept in the bath over the ending.

I can’t tell you how well Larson adapted the original text, not whether this was a faithful or divergent adaptation, but what I can tell you is this. Sometimes it’s good to come into a classic in a different way, and when you’re guided by a wide-eyed Charles Wallace or the unknown strength of Meg Murry, rendered in Larson’s expressive, precise and heartfelt lines, it’s a pretty good route to try. What a lovely, unexpected joy this was.

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Diary of a Tokyo Teen : Christine Mari Inzer

Diary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid CafesDiary of a Tokyo Teen: A Japanese-American Girl Draws Her Way Across the Land of Trendy Fashion, High-Tech Toilets and Maid Cafes by Christine Mari Inzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s something immensely charming about this slender yet lovely memoir of a trip that Inzer took to Tokyo by herself at the age of sixteen. Diary of A Tokyo Teen documents this trip and captures those moments when the Japanese-American Inzer begins to understand and rationalise her place in the world as somebody who is, as she phrases it, always”halfway home”.

I picked this up on Amazon, pushing a gift voucher to the very edges as is the way with such things, and I was delighted by it. There’s an undoubted naivete to some of Inzer’s work; a few of her panels feel a little isolated and disjointed, but it’s easy to forgive this when you consider the book as a whole. There’s such a rich sense of heart here; thick and emphatic lines, fat and bold colours and some utterly delightful glances into the Japanese culture. What’s also delightful is that Inzer does not deny her perspective as a teenager. This book crackles with honesty, whether it’s wishing that the hotties on the train would look up from their phones or to doodling a cartoon face over hers on a photograph.

This is early stuff from Inzer, but it’s full of promise and joy. It’s hard to deny the richness of her work and I suspect, hope, she’s got immense things to come for her in the future. Diary of a Tokyo Teen is a delight, and one that I suspect might be inspirational.

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Malibu Summer – Sweet Valley High: Francine Pascal

Malibu Summer (Sweet Valley High Super Edition, #4)Malibu Summer by Francine Pascal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been a long while since I read a Sweet Valley book, and even longer since I’ve seen the TV adaptation, but I’ve got neither out of my head. There’s something about these books that I’ve grouped with something like The Babysitters Club, Bug Juice, and A Horse Called Wonder, those stories and shows of glossy sunlit Americana that did nothing but appeal to somebody who was more familiar with rain and bare, grey days. And the TV show! That theme tune! Could there be two different girls who look the same as Sweet Valley High ?! These are my madeleines, Proust, deal with it.

The delight of the Sweet Valley books comes in their matter of fact bluntness; they are what they are and they make no bones about it. Elizabeth is sensible, Jessica is not. Everyone is incredibly foxy, and spend much of their day foxing about the beach or foxing at the shops, looking foxily at beautiful and expensive yet foxy clothes. There’s usually some sort of slender moral, but mainly there’s foxiness, and it’s oddly spectacular. We, the adults, the patriarchy, whatever, we often denigrate books like this, all too easily, because we’re simply not comfortable with the fact that there’s a space for romance and simple, bold brushstrokes in young adult literature. In young adult life, really. We laugh at the way people obsess over bands, and find comfort in fandoms, when really these are all just facets of life and have no reason to not be in literature. I will fight you, Britishly, with severe looks and tutting, if you suggest that they should not be.

Malibu Summer is spectacularly unapologetic in doing what it does: there’s romance, several jaw-dropping subplots, some delightfully nutty nuance on Lila’s choice of swimming costume, and I loved it. Yes, certain aspects may have dated at this point, but as a whole the book is wonderful. Nothing makes sense. Everything glows. Everyone is foxy. Everyone gets a job or a hottie or some sort of moral fulfillment. It’s brilliant. I loved it. What a ridiculous, gorgeous, honest book this is.

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Pandora of Parrham Royal : Violet Needham

Pandora of Parrham RoyalPandora of Parrham Royal by Violet Needham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Violet Needham for a while but never really known about her, the specifics, at all. I had a vague idea that she was a contemporary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, but then, as I never found her work either in the library, bookshops or charity shops, I sort of placed her in the background. Needham was texture; a name I knew, but didn’t.

A few days ago, I homed in on that familar Girls Gone By spine in a shop, and picked up a copy of Pandora at Parrham Royal. It’s a crazy title, backed up by the equally crazy blurb on the back. Let me directly quote the first three sentences: “When Pandora comes to Parrham Royal she finds many problems and a strange mystery facing her. During the war years she and her mother had lived and worked with a band of guerillas in Greece. After her mother’s tragic death she comes to England to live with her father, whom she barely remembers, and her cousins, whom she does not know at all.” I’ll stop there because, to be frank, there’s little else I can add to that remarkable opening. I’ve read a lot of books from the 40s – 50s, and can confidently say I’ve never read anything quite like this. It’s a book that more than lives up to its synopsis in a sort of remarkably distinct, and stubborn manner. I can see why it wasn’t reprinted, and I can see why it’s relatively unknown today, but my goodness, this is such a strange and fabulous and marked book.

One of its most notable characteristics is the spectre of the war upon it; Pandora, herself, spent the war living and working in a sort of M*A*S*H unit deep in the Greek mountains where she helped nurse soldiers back to life and helped them die in peace. I’m conscious that I’m overusing the word ‘remarkable’ when I describe this book, but there’s very little other words that will suit. I’m thinking in particular of the moment where Pandora is revealed to have an excellent throwing arm – one which is subsequently revealed to have been because the soldiers trained her to throw grenades. I mean – my goodness, this book.

Pandora’s not the only one marked by the impact of the war; one of her young cousins, Mary, suffers a type of post-traumatic stress from being trapped in a bombed out house, whilst the estate of Parrham Royal has half-seceded from the present day and instead found solace in a landscape
where Greek mythology can co-exist alongside wartime stress and strain. It’s a fascinating, complex, challenging book. It’s not an easy read; Needham’s an idiosyncratic wielder of commas, delighting in sentences that start to lead one way then turn sharply into something else. And, if I’m honest, the book’s ending could have done with some fierce editing and somebody going “So Violet, yes, it’s kind of madly magnificent and oddly compelling, but if you could – maybe – just – clarify a few points for me?”.

I don’t know what to make of this book, really, because it’s so fiercely singular. It’s compelling, though, even when it’s less than lucid, and I suspect that’s what’s going to stay with me. Pandora of Parrham Royal is so fiercely determined to be what it is and you can’t help but love that. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it thinks it makes sense but really doesn’t, this book is remarkable. There’s really no other word for it.

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