22 December 2009

Book of the Week (43): "Snow White" by Jane Ray

This one is for all you late shoppers, running around like headless chickens, tearing your hair out, trying to find those last few elusive Christmas presents. Well, if you happen to have a 3-7 year old on your list, or even an adult with an appreciative eye and a taste for fairytales, you are in luck. Walker books just published a new edition of Snow White, retold and illustrated by one of their top artists – Jane Ray. This edition is subtitled “A Three Dimensional Fairy-Tale Theatre” and includes 6 scenes, all framed by dramatic red curtains, behind which hides the story itself, told simply and elegantly, with no frills to distract from the main event: the outstanding illustrations. Exquisitely detailed, coloured in a warm palette, and with Ray’s signature patterns, these illustrations, inspired by folk art from various locations, are especially suited to this classic fairytale. Each scene is delicately layered, bringing the characters and their surroundings to life. Rich and vibrant, it is bound to impress any child, and quite a few adults, who will be delighted to find it under their tree. A truly special gift, if you can bear to part with it.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Jane Ray has illustrated a beautiful edition of Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Berlie Doherty and including twelve stories.
  • Jan Pienkowski’s Fairy Tales is another beautiful edition illustrated with his stylish silhouettes to a truly magical effect.

17 December 2009

Book of the Week (42): "Ernest" by Catherine Rayner

This is a very simple, one-idea book. But it's such a good idea, and so well executed, that it's a really pleasing, satisfying read even for those of us who aren't two years old...

Ernest is very large. A very large moose. So large, indeed, is Ernest the moose that he can't even fit into this book! You can see bits of him on each spread, but he can't quite squeeze himself fully in, however hard he tries - which is very, very sad... But Ernest has a persistent little friend, and together they devise a brilliant solution, leading to a final fold-out quadruple-size page, and there he is!

Catherine Rayner's pictures are gorgeous (she won the Greenaway Medal this year for Harris Finds His Feet), making Ernest so much more than just a good joke, but a sweet, lovely book all-round. Just delightful.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

07 December 2009

Book of the Week (41): "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by John Lawrence

A horse dashing through the night, a deadly black spot… Prepare for the adventure of your life. The wild, whispering sea dominates the book, as it did illustrator John Lawrence’s childhood, and he portrays it in all its moods; you can hear the rolling waves, and the cabins creak and experience the wonder and cruelty of sea life. We accompany the pirates' approach to the Admiral Benbow inn, the rowdy bustle of harbour life. The cast of unforgettable characters leap from the page; Lawrence’s vibrant woodcut engravings convey the rough-hewn, vivid lives of Jim and his pirates, and portrays the extraordinary Long John Silver, Jim’s nemesis and saviour, and one of the greatest characters you’ll ever meet, just as I imagined him, leaving him haunting you long after you close the book. Rarely have I seen illustrations that match more closely to my own ideal image of the story and its characters; they amplify the key scenes like the best music does in a film, so we feel we are peering over brave Jim Hawkins's shoulder as he writes. We creep through trees of the mysterious island itself, catching glimpses of shocking scenes, and stumbling upon the castaway Ben Gunn, who reveals an extraordinary secret. The text itself is beautiful; but the illustrations make is something special. A fantastic gift, perfect for pirates of all ages.

The Walker Illustrated Classics series of which this is a part is an amazing project, and they have matched artists to the texts perfectly, with each artist responding imaginatively to the text in a way that opens up new ways of seeing. Particular favourites so far are Chris Riddell’s rendering of Gulliver’s Travels, Inga Moore’s wonderfully evocative drawings for The Secret Garden, and the witty paintings and collages of Sara Fanelli that capture the mischevious spirit of Pinocchio. The series is hugely collectable, and gives both new readers and those familiar with the classics an ideal opportunity to discover some of the greatest children’s stories ever told, in beautiful editions that make turning each page a surprise and delight.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

01 December 2009

Book of the Week (40): "Crocodile Tears" by Anthony Horowitz

Alex is in Scotland for New Year’s Eve enjoying normal life for once. Until he meets Desmond McCain who is head of a charity called First Aid. He starts a simple card game that slowly becomes a duel to the death. This all gets worse when he meets a journalist who plans to reveal the truth about Alex being a spy. Alex is forced to ask MI6 for protection, but this sends him on a new mission that could lead to the deaths of millions of people in East Africa. Will he be able to save millions of African people or not? You have to read the book to find out!

This is the 8th book in the Alex Rider series and probably the best one because it really keeps you gripped. My favourite character is, without doubt, Alex - because he’s curious, clever and strong (I could probably go on forever...).

Recommended by Jeremy Assouly, age 11

23 November 2009

Book of the Week (39): "Grubtown Tales" series by Philip Ardagh

Stinking Rich and Just Plain Stinky, The Year That It Rained Cows and The Far From Great Escape are the first three titles in the Grubtown Tales series. The books are as extremely silly as one would expect from a collection of stories penned by the illustrious Mr Ardagh.

Stinking Rich and Just Plain Stinky has just won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize in the age 7-14 category, and funny it is indeed. It tells of the trials of several members of Grubtown, including Jilly Cheeter the official duck gatherer, her friend Mango Claptrap, and Manual Org, a chap so repulsive that instead of having greasy hair, he has hairy grease.

Beardy Ardagh is himself a character in the story as he too is, it turns out, an inhabitant of Grubtown. This allows for many entertaining asides. For example, he reports that after a spell of windy weather:

"I'd found a missing child in my beard. She must have been blown in there. I don't want you to think that my beard's particularly big. It's just that the child was particularly small."

If you like your reading matter to be exceedingly daft, Grubtown Tales are for you.

Recommended by Susan Reuben

  • For more Philip Ardagh, try the Eddie Dickens series, starting with Awful End.
  • Or for something if possible even sillier than Grubtown Tales, read Andy Stanton's Mr Gum books, starting with You're a Bad Man, Mr Gum!
  • Jeremy Strong writes funny and anarchic books. Try Krazy Kow Saves the World - Well, Almost.

20 November 2009

And a photo too...

This from the end of the BTP event yesterday:

Front row (L to R) are judge Aniketa Khushu (one of last year's teen judges) and this year's teen judges Manyara, Laura, Daniel and Claudia; back row (L to R) are shortlisted authors Keith Gray and Helen Grant, chair of judges Judi James, judge (and 2007 BTP winner) Marcus Sedgwick, shortlisted author (and last year's winner) Patrick Ness, judge Me, and shortlisted authors Paul Dowswell and Jenny Valentine.

[Photo (c) Alex Rumford]

19 November 2009

Booktrust Teenage Prize event

Yes, so the Booktrust Awards Ceremony was on the 10th floor of the Penguin building on The Strand, with a rather extraordinary view of the Thames stretching in both directions.

The prize announcer (who I believe was the chair of the judges?) gave a short summary of each title before announcing the winner - causing me to recite 'The Lady of Shallot' frantically in my head to try to block her out whenever she was talking about one of the titles I hadn't read yet - lest she should give a vital plot point away. This may make me a bit strange.

There was mention of the judges having put an extraordinary amount of work into reading over 100 books in a not very large amount of time. There was reference to them reading well into the night and sending out emails in the early hours of the morning. Danny is the main culprit, I strongly suspect. Much praise was also given to the teen judges who had won a writing competition in order to take part.

I asked fellow judge and previous winner Marcus Sedgwick whether he'd got over the judging process yet. "I'll never get over it," he replied, darkly.

The Graveyard Book as winner came as no big surprise. Neil Gaiman is not only such a strong writer, but also such an extremely original one, that the book seems just made for an award. Chris Riddell, the brilliant illustrator of the children's edition of the book, who came up to receive the award, was given a short speech to read out on behalf of Neil Gaiman - which ended with a laugh when he had to end by thanking himself.

So - lots of wine and chat, not enough canapes - but the event was fun and interesting, and well done Danny and co.

18 November 2009

and the winner is...

The Graveyard Book!

Which is a result I'm very proud of (though I've heard from dissenters already...) - I think it's a wonderful book. I'm not going to write about the book itself at any length here as I've raved about it often enough - in the forthcoming new Teen Guide I chose this as one of the ones I recommended myself, actually - but in short, I do love it. Original, witty, charming, beautifully written, warm, wise, gripping, all those good things that go to making a book I believe will last a long, long time.

(Oh, and talking about the new Teen Guide, my final act as editor of the UTBG was to e-mail our publishers this afternoon with the news of the BTPrize winner so that this last last-minute piece of information could be dropped in, and then it goes to press! Done forever! Hooray!)

But back to the prize... It was a good party with all the shortlisted authors (apart from Neil Gaiman himself, who was represented by his illustrator Chris Riddell) and many other friends; Susan was there too and will report back in detail, but I couldn't wait to share the news!

16 November 2009

Booktrust Teenage Prize Countdown...

So, the judges have met and the winner has been chosen. The announcement ceremony will be held at 12:30 on Wednesday - just 39 hours to go... So who's it going to be?

A reminder of the shortlist:
  • The Ant Colony (Jenny Valentine)
  • The Ask and the Answer (Patrick Ness)
  • Ausländer (Paul Dowswell)
  • The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
  • Ostrich Boys (Keith Gray)
  • The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (Helen Grant)

A good list or what?

We'll let you know how it all goes on Wednesday... Can't wait!

Book of the Week (38): "1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up" edited by Julia Eccleshare

If there's one thing the editors of the Ultimate Book Guide series know (and there may well be just the one), it's that any selection of books to recommend will be just that - a selection, a limited personal choice from tens of thousands of possibilities; and that there will always be things other people agree with, and things they don't. And the ones that they'll write in to tell you about will always be the latter.

But it is also precisely part of the fun in leafing through Julia Eccleshare's superb new doorstop volume - 1001 Children's Books... - to see what she has included and what she hasn't, and to allow oneself a little bit of feigned outrage each time her choices don't precisely match one's own. (Fire-Eaters instead of Kit's Wilderness? No Coraline? Sneetches? Shocking! I'm appalled! Speechless! Hmph!) But as I say, the truth is there's a lot of fun to be had from just that exercise; and as one would expect, Eccleshare's selection is brilliant, expert, and probably as close to that impossible perfect selection as it's possible to get in the real world...

Among the 1001 titles reviewed by Eccleshare's team of experts (and a few by some of the biggest names in children's books today - Eric Carle on Struwwelpeter, Judy Blume on Madeline, as well as Pullman, Almond, Morpurgo, Wilson, etc.) you'll find a surprising number you don't recognise mixed in among the indusputable classics, among the Narnias and Sendaks and Gruffalos and the like; the range includes a large number of non-Anglophone writers, which tend to get very little prominence in the Anglophone world - I'm delighted to have been led to some things I might not otherwise have found (though in the cases where they have been translated, I would have liked some reference to the fact and to the identity of the translator, but then I suppose I would...) - I've dog-eared lots of pages that recommend books I didn't know but like the sound of and must track down sometime...

The reviewed books are divided into age bands - 0-3, 3+, 5+, 8+, 12+ - so it's user-friendly for anyone who wants it as a practical guide to find things for today's children; but I suspect many of the people who will love this book the most will be those who haven't been children for some time; yes, it's about books for children, but this beautifully put together object, richly illustrated in colour throughout its 900+ pages, should find its way into a lot of adult-sized stockings this Christmas, too...

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

15 November 2009

Beardy Ardagh interview

My interview with the just-announced Roald Dahl Funny Prize winner Philip Ardagh ran in today's Independent on Sunday.

Read it here.

Hope you like.

10 November 2009

Crocodile Tears

To a launch party this evening to commemorate Anthony Horowitz's latest Alex Rider book, Crocodile Tears. A lively party held in Anthony's beautiful home, with lots of old friends from the children's books world... Really fun...

An advance copy of Crocodile Tears is being avidly read at this moment and a review will appear in our Book of the Week slot on November 30th.

Meantime if you want to hear Anthony talking about the new book, Walker (his publishers) and the Hay Festival have organised an event at London's Apollo Theatre this Saturday - you'll find booking details in the flier on the left. Should be a great event!

Roald Dahl Funny Prize

Delighted to see that the winners of the 2009 Roald Dahl Funny Prize were announced this afternoon. The two very deserving (very funny) winning books are Sam Lloyd's Mr Pusskins: Best in Show in the picture-book / early-reader category; and Philip Ardagh's Stinking Rich and Just Plain Stinky, the first in the Grubtown Tales series, in the seven-plus category.

I was lucky enough to interview The Great Bearded One Himself a couple of weeks ago, and my piece will appear in the Independent on Sunday this weekend - keep an eye out for it.

And Susan will be writing about Grubtown in our Book of the Week slot the week after next (no.39) so be sure to check back here then...

08 November 2009

Book of the Week (37): "Mantlemass 1: The Lark and the Laurel" by Barbara Willard

It was at Bosworth field that the red rose of Lancaster finally trod the white rose of York into the blood-sodden English earth. Civil war, one that had lasted for decades, was finally at an end. The repercussions were to last for many years more, not least for those who had changed sides, seeing self-advancement as more important than any loyalty. Cecily's father is one such man, and in the chaotic weeks after Bosworth he flees England, seeking safety in France, but leaving his cosseted daughter behind, given to his sister for safekeeping. Cecily has been kept safe from the world; dressed in rich clothes, veiled, guarded day and night with her every whim catered for until she is nothing but a spoilt, self-centred girl.

The day she is abandoned by her father, all that changes. At first she screams and rails against the unfairness of life, but slowly the rhythm of country life takes hold, and her hands turn from lily-white and smooth to nut-brown and skilled. And, as her body comes to learn this new life, her mind breaks free from the chains that held her as the obedient, meek, babyish girl who obeyed her father's every whim and she becomes a young woman who thinks for herself, who understands and relishes her new freedom - and who seizes love when it is offered.

This is a wonderful story. History, a sense of place, truly three-dimensional characters and a slow-building love story all combine into an enthralling read. There's adventure too, and a chase on horseback that'll have you biting your nails, breathless for the outcome. But it is the twist in the story's tail that lifts this Mantlemass book above other historical romps. A twist that you really don't see coming...

This isn't a new book. Originally published in 1970 it is the first in a series of seven, and it has just been published anew and for a new generation to enjoy. I've fallen in love, and am going to hunt down all the others - hopefully Jane Nissen Books will be re-releasing them soon. Jane Nissen Books' self-advertising reads: "Bringing Classic Children's Books Back into Print". Well, if all her classics are as fresh and readable as this one, then we should all be reading them - every one.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn


  • Try more from Jane Nissen - the Noel Streatfields are probably the closest to Mantlemass, so (if you haven't already) try the delight of Theatre Shoes. Or if you want more history, try Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time.
  • The closest books in terms feel to the Mantlemass stories (a fabulous sense of place, a deeply affecting love story etc) are K. M. Peyton's Flambards series.
  • Or maybe a more recent take on the historical novel? Try something like Mary Hoffman's The Falconer's Knot or Troubadour.

02 November 2009

Book of the Week (36): "And Another Thing... (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Part Six of Three)" by Eoin Colfer

I want to divide this review into two questions: is it a good read and is the book Wrong? Some things are just Wrong. The pub food staple Lasagne-with-chips is a good example. It’s very enjoyable, but clearly as a gastronomic combination it is Wrong. Similarly, having somebody other than the late Douglas Adams writing a Hitchhiker book is Wrong. It is not quite as Wrong as the new Winnie the Pooh book, but nevertheless it is Wrong.

If you can come to terms with its Wrongness, it is a jolly enjoyable book. Colfer slips effortlessly into the Hitchhiker style, and is at ease writing that Ford spoke “in a voice so superior it would have caused single-cell life forms to accelerate their evolution so that they could use their fab new opposable thumbs to pick up a rock and beat him to death”.

It is not as good as the best of the previous five books in the trilogy (the first one, obviously) but it is certainly better than the worst. The one part of the style he cannot match is Adams’s extraordinary ideas. He has nothing in the same league as the infinite improbability drive, the restaurant at the end of the universe or even the Somebody Else’s Problem invisibility device. The quality of the writing will come as no surprise to anybody who has read Artemis Fowl, so the question I am left with is whether I would have enjoyed a new volume from Colfer aimed at slightly older audiences featuring new characters any more than I enjoyed this book. At least it wouldn’t have been Wrong.

Recommended by Anthony Reuben

26 October 2009

Book of the Week (35): "Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Death and Dementia" illustrated by Gris Grimly

It’s tough to re-imagine a classic. Even tougher when that classic has images already firmly established in the popular imagination. Artists as diverse as Aubrey Beardsley, Édouard Manet, Gustave Doré and John Tenniel have illustrated versions of the Gothic and grim stories. Filmmakers too have tried to put Poe’s words into images – the British Hammer Horror series being particularly fond of filming them (often starring Vincent Price). The Alan Parsons Project made a concept album based on them, The Simpsons TV show has referred to Edgar Allan Poe at least four times in different episodes and more books than there’s room for here have referenced either Poe or one of his stories. So how do you approach such a well-worn subject and make it fresh? The answer, according to Gris Grimly, is to turn up the gruesome button and re-create the stories as half-text half-graphic novel.

Having wondered whether a name such as ‘Gris Grimly’ could in fact be real (hmm...), and then subsequently pondered if, having been born with (or created) such a name, illustrating Poe was a foregone conclusion (and working with Neil Gaiman – they collaborated on The Dangerous Alphabet) I checked out his website – well worth doing, though quite adult (bet that put you off...) – and found that maybe it was. Though whether sent by fate or accident it has to be admitted that this is a match made in Heaven (or possibly Hell, of course).

Gore, blood, dismembered limbs, misery, corpses, coffins and madness – they’re all here; in the words of Poe and in Grimly's gloriously anarchic and bloody illustrations. If you have a taste for the macabre, love being scared, and think Darren Shan is ideal bedtime reading, go and find a copy of this – you’ll relish every page.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

  • More Poe – the complete Tales of Mystery and Imagination are fabulously chilling reading. Look out for the ones illustrated by other authors too – the one by Arthur Rackham is brilliant.
  • Or some Darren Shan? The closest to this in terms of splatter is undoubtedly The Demonata, starting with Lord Loss.
  • Or more classic illustrated horror? Try The Tomb of Dracula by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Gene Colan.

16 October 2009

Book of the Week (34): "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood" by David Benedictus, with decorations by Mark Burgess

Like everyone else I know, I was secretly wanting not to like this book. Self-righteous indignation is so much fun, after all. How could they have allowed such a thing?! A sequel to Winnie the Pooh? Outrageous! And yes, having read it I am still slightly outraged at the very idea of the thing (who do these people think they are?... Winnie the Pooh is MINE and I haven't authorised this...) But I have to confess, grudgingly, that Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is lovely.

Christopher Robin is back home from school for the summer, just a little bit more grown-up than last time we saw him. But the friends he is reunited with in the Hundred Acre Wood have not, fortunately, grown up at all. Everyone we remember and love is there - Kanga and Roo, bouncy Tigger, Rabbit and Owl (WOL), Eeyore, Piglet, and, of course, the "silly old bear" himself, Winnie the Pooh. Over the summer they learn to play cricket, Owl tries to write a book, Rabbit tries to organise a census, and together they manage to find a solution to the drought that has left them all hot and uncomfortable, especially their new friend Lottie, an otter, the latest addition to the group.

Return... has some good and very AAMilneish jokes, it has very sweet, tender moments too, and much of the tone feels just right and wonderfully familiar. The pictures too, with just an occasional quibble, are very much of a piece with Shepard's originals, and they help to make us feel at home in this book too.

Inevitably not everything about it is perfect, not every word is on target, and however sweet it lacks the imaginative originality of Milne's books; but though it invites comparisons to the Milnes, that's hardly a fair measure of success (yes, it may be found wanting when seen against the Milnes, but really, what wouldn't?). A brave endeavour, and a delightfully successful one on the whole. There can't be many who would not be charmed by this book. (Yes, Eeyore, even you...)

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

12 October 2009

Book of the Week (33): "The Bride's Farewell" by Meg Rosoff

Meg Rosoff’s first novel, How I Live Now, burst onto the scene to a shower of praise, winning a multitude of awards and establishing Rosoff as a major voice in the teen literature market. Her new book, The Bride’s Farewell is written in the same assured hand and with the same attention to detail, but instead of taking place in the present or near future, as in her previous novels, it takes the reader back in time to join a Victorian spirited heroine on a journey that will change the course of her life.

Pell used to think that she'd like to marry Birdie, the boy next door, with whom she shared many childhood hours at both work and play. But when the time comes, Pell realises that all that Birdie can offer her is a miserable future as a housebound mother and wife, and so she steals away on the morning of her wedding, accompanied by her loyal horse Jack and, to her displeasure, her mute younger brother Bean. She leaves behind a drunken fundamentalist father, a broken mother and a handful of sisters who she assures herself will get by without her.

Pell's bid for freedom takes her on a treacherous path. She loses both her companions early on due to a swindling horse trader, and is reduced to near starvation as she scavenges on her way to reclaim all that was lost to her. Enter Dogman, a dark and brooding poacher, with whom she develops a relationship of sorts until she is ready to face the road, and the consequences of her actions, again. As I read the book I was constantly reminded of both Thomas Hardy, the late-19th century novelist, famous for his vivid descriptions of rural England and the doomed characters inhabiting it; and, in the character of Dogman especially, D.H Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors, better known as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The Bride’s Farewell captures the Victorian countryside beautifully, in all its glory and misery.

Pell’s affinity with, and deep understanding of horses is convincingly described, and although I am not a horse person myself, I could see the attraction when looking through Pell’s eyes. Pell herself is a great proto-feminist character, and I found myself rooting for her all the way. My only disappointment was the matter-of-factness in which Rosoff treated Pell and Dogman’s relationship. While it was a bond between two none-too-communicative outsiders, I expected Pell’s emancipation to also have a sexual or emotional aspect to it which I felt was underexplored in the novel. Nevertheless,
The Bride’s Farewell is a compelling historical novel, obviously written through modern-day eyes, but without compromising on the period details which lend it depth and integrity. Fans will not be disappointed.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • If you haven't read all of Meg Rosoff's other books, try her first, How I Live Now; and then go on to Just in Case and What I Was.
  • I mentioned Thomas Hardy and D.H Lawrence, and therefore I recommend checking out their novels, many of which belong to the cannon of great European literature. My favourites are Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, though Lady Chatterley’s Lover is also a good racy read which I very much enjoyed in my late teens.

08 October 2009

Guardian Children's Fiction Prize

Well, after the Forward Prize for poetry (to Don Patterson), and the Booker (to Hilary Mantel) and the Nobel (to Herta Müller), all announced in the last 24 hours, it's only fair that we get at least one big children's book prize announcement tonight too. And so we do. The winner of the 2009 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize has just been named a few moments ago, and I'm absolutely delighted to say that the book the judges have chosen is Exposure by Mal Peet.

A great choice. Chosen from a strong shortlist - alongside it were Terry Pratchett's Nation, Morris Gleitzman's Then and Siobhan Dowd's Solace of the Road - Mal's re-working of the Othello story is a terrific teen book - pacy, clever, impeccably written. (I know I've mentioned in an earlier post how much I loved it...)

I should mention one quibble only - I'm currently reading Marcus Sedgwick's longlisted Revolver and rather baffled that it didn't make the shortlist... But of the ones I've read those that did are all certainly fine books, I think, and Exposure is a very worthy winner. Huge congratulations to Mal!

[Exposure is included in the forthcoming U Teen B G, enthusiastically recommended by Patrick Ness, one of the Guardian judges and last year's winner.]

06 October 2009

Book of the Week (32): "Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers" by John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh

There are good graphic novels, and there are great ones. As soon as I finished this one, I re-read it. Several times. Alan Moore, who doesn’t usually write reviews, called it “wonderfully imaginative and stylish”. Originally published in instalments in the award winning anthology Sturgeon, Salem Brownstone will surprise and delight in equal measure. But what is it? Supernatural Thriller? Gothic Noir? Gritty Romance? John Harris Dunning and Nikhil Singh’s witty narrative contains elements of all of these.

Salem never really knew his father, but is all too happy to pocket the keys to the family mansion when his father dies an untimely death. He is looking forward to drinking away the inheritance. But along with the keys come a part in a crucial battle with beings beyond this world, intent on destroying it. A good thing that Dr Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights is parked across the way, and the gorgeous (and frighteningly flexible) Cassandra is on hand to help, although she seems to know more than she lets on. Who is one-eyed Lola Q? What has happened to Lorelei, the singer who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances? What do the terrifying Shadow Boys want with his father’s scrying ball? Each answer only seems to raise even larger questions.

We journey with the witty, wisecracking Salem into a darkly gothic otherworld where nothing and no-one is what they seem, as he discovers just how much he mattered to his father, and decides that just maybe he should matter to himself. The beautiful drawings of Nikhil Singh recall Dorian Grey channelling Aubrey Beardsley, and reward repeated reading with compelling details; every character is sharply drawn and suggestive, and the narrative and drawing style move between several different worlds with fluid ease. As the stakes mount ever higher, and everything seems to be falling apart, I was willing Salem and his newfound associates on. The ending is delightful and unexpected, leaving open the possibility that there is more to come. I certainly hope so.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

03 October 2009

Book of the Week (31): "The Death Defying Pepper Roux" by Geraldine McCaughrean

"On the morning of his fourteenth birthday, Pepper had been awake for fully two minutes before realising it was the day he must die. His heart cannoned like a billiard ball off some soft green wall of his innards. This had to be the day everyone had been waiting for – and he was terrified he
would disappoint them, make a poor showing, let people down."

Thus begins Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest book, The Death Defying Pepper Roux, and with an opening paragraph like that how could you not want to read on?

When Pepper is born his Aunt announces that she has had a visit from Saint Constance in a dream. The saint’s message is clear (she has very good diction): Pepper will be dead by the time he is fourteen. And so Pepper grows up being taught the words of the funeral service, having to go to confession every other day and having to stay at home (there’s no point in wasting a good education on him if he won’t live to use it).

Then, on the day of his fourteenth birthday, life takes a surprising turn and Pepper finds himself leaping from one adventure to the next, with barely time to take a breath.

This is a terrific book and I defy anyone to read it and guess what’s coming next. Geraldine McCaughrean has a style all of her own and she is mistress of the magical power of similes to enrich a story.

My advice? Suspend your disbelief and join Pepper for the journey of a lifetime!

Recommended by Laura Hutchings

23 September 2009

Book of the Week (30): “Tell Me a Dragon” by Jackie Morris

I want a dragon! I want one! And trust me, you will too. Each of the people in this glowingly beautiful book has a dragon of his or her own. And each dragon is different, depending on their person and depending on the world in which they live. There are dragons for skyscapes and seascapes, dragons from cityscapes and fairytale-princess landscapes, there are dragons in worlds of fire and worlds of ice. Though only 14 pictures – including front and back endpapers – and under 180 words long (slightly shorter, in other words, than this paragraph), I nonetheless spent a good half-hour on my first reading of this book, marvelling with slow relish at Jackie Morris’s colours and the vividness of her rich imagination, exploring the perspectives and the scales (in a proportional, as well as a dragon-skinned sense), alighting on delightful details, looking into her wonderful creatures’ reptile eyes. Tell Me a Dragon shows you what picture books can be at their most elegant and lyrical – if you can’t get a dragon of your own, well, this magical book may be the next best thing.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

22 September 2009

Teen prize shortlist

If feels like such a long time since we announced our longlist back in July, but now, at last...

I'm delighted to report that our shortlist for the Booktrust Teenage Prize was announced today.

The six books we've chosen are:
A good, good selection, strong and interesting. I'm very pleased with it indeed. Very good, bold books all. Varying greatly, each from the other, but every one very engaging, every one very thought-provoking; sometimes moving, often very ambitious, with six quite different writing voices and six quite different moods. Any one of them is well worth a read - or read all of them!

I'm planning to re-read them all before we have our next (and final) judging meeting in November, and I'm looking forward to the treat...

Meantime let me know any thoughts - do you agree with our choices? What are you pleased to see recognised? What's your favourite teen book of the year that we inexplicably overlooked? Very keen to hear any feedback...

15 September 2009

Book of the Week (29): "A Trick of the Dark" by B.R. Collins

In a famous scene in Peter Pan, Wendy wakes to find Peter crying in the nursery because his shadow has broken off, and she sews it back to his feet. Now move the plot to the 21st century, add some years to Peter and Wendy and make them teenaged brother and sister, throw in large amounts of angst and supernatural horror and you have the excellent new novel from B.R. Collins.

Although A Trick of the Dark is inspired by Peter Pan and is scattered throughout with references to J.M. Barrie’s classic tale (which are, by the way, fun to spot), this novel is unlikely to be read to small children before bedtime. The relationship between the popular and charming Zach and his adoring younger sister Annis is fraught, especially when they are forced to spend the summer vacation in a secluded French farm with two parents on the brink of a very acrimonious divorce. Zach has been involved with some pretty nasty stuff back home and now hangs out sulking and foul-mouthed where he shouldn’t be – a derelict barn on the verge of collapse. And collapse it does – on top of Zach, right in front of Annis’ horrified eyes. Surely Zach couldn’t survive this crash? How is it possible that he gets up unscathed? And who exactly is that dark boy-shaped shadow which chases him, leaving death in his wake? Alternating between Zach’s diary entries and Annis’ relation of events, A Trick of the Dark leads the reader down a creepy, bone-chilling path to an unsettling resolution.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • B.R. Collins’ first novel The Traitor’s Game, about friendship and betrayal, laced with a dose of fantasy, has won the Branford Boase Award and is well worth reading.
  • Peter Pan in Scarlet, the recent sequel to Peter Pan, beautifully written by Geraldine McCaughrean, also picks up on the dark side of this story, as it follows the now grown Lost Boys and Wendy on their mission to stop a leak which blurs the boundaries between Wonderland and our world. Not for young kids.
  • In A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin the wish to impress school mates makes young wizard Sparrowhawk release a deadly shadow which he now must chase to the end of the earth - oh, and kill a dragon too.


Apologies for the past fortnight's silence - circumstances beyond our control...

Book of the Week no. 29 will be posted very shortly. It's probably time for a general catching-up-on-news post, so will do that soon too...


25 August 2009

Book of the Week (28): "The Vanishing of Katharina Linden" by Helen Grant

My attention was drawn to this book when it appeared on the Booktrust Teen Prize longlist. A first novel with just the kind of title that is likely to lure me in and a compelling cover image of a girl, silhouetted in white, disappearing in a forest. But would it be any good?

The answer yes. Helen Grant weaves a compelling tale set in the picturesque German town of Bad Munstereifel. (Now I am going to have to work out how to write an umlaut in the blog editor. Here we go: Bad Münstereifel.)

Pia, about to join secondary school, becomes fascinated and horrified by the disapparance of a young girl from the town. With her friend Stefan (whom she sometimes wishes was not her friend) she turns amateur detective, trying to find out what happened to Katharina, but taking rather a different approach from that of the police.

What transpires particularly towards the end is not for the faint hearted.

Bad Münstereifel almost becomes a character in the story, its folklore, its architecture, its atmosphere, all essential to the feel of the book.

After the book was finished, I was left a little bit frustrated by some issues that I felt could have been explored in more depth. But despite this, I think Katharina Linden is a really strong debut. Gripping.

Recommended by Susan Reuben


  • In Kevin Brooks’s Black Rabbit Summer the main character’s best friend goes missing, and the book is partly about trying to unravel why. Or look out for Celia Rees’s The Vanished, which is also about children going missing.
  • In Kate Thompson’s Creature of the Night, the folk tales of the Irish countryside are horrifyingly and realistically brought up to date.
  • Or for a different twist, try Michael Grant’s Gone, in which all the adults have disappeared… or Lucy Christopher’s Stolen, which is the story of a kidnapping told by the missing girl.
  • And of course, be sure to check out the rest of the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2009 longlisted titles too.

17 August 2009

Book of the Week (27): "Fever Crumb" by Philip Reeve

Oh, what a happy day to open the first page of a new Mortal Engines instalment, and what a sad day to finish the last. I’m pretty sure that for most people it will be the same day. This long-awaited prequel stands alone, but the experience will be much more rewarding if it is read after the original quartet as many intriguing questions are answered, including some concerning the enigmatic cyborg Shrike. Fever Crumb is a candy box of a novel full of little treats which you just can’t stop nibbling. The description of futuristic London pre Urban Darwinism are full of humour and imagination, and in the character of Fever Crumb herself Reeve has provided his world with another tough cookie (with cream on the inside). Fever is a rarity – a female engineer-in-training, a foundling adopted by Dr Crumb and brought up in the domain of reason and logic within the Guild’s headquarters up in Godshawk’s Head. Then archaeologist Kit Solent asks her to help him with his excavations in the cellar of Nonesuch House, Godshawk’s underground workroom. The long dead Scriven ruler of London was known for his inventions and fascination with old technology and Solent is sure that Fever can help him unlock the secrets that his cellar holds. However, it seems that the house unlocks a suppressed part in Fever’s own brain, and as the story unfolds she unravels the mystery of her origins. She has little time to uncover the facts – the locals are at her heels trying to kill her while the nomads of the North with their traction castles are approaching London fast intending to capture it. Fabulous stuff, and it looks like there will be more – yippee!

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Really you should read the Mortal Engines quartet before Fever Crumb, but if you didn’t, then I’m pretty sure you’ll be picking up the four books very quickly once you finished this one.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is a magical fantasy about a down-to-earth heroine and a vain but talented wizard who lives in an ever-shifting castle.
  • Un Lun Dun by China Miéville is another fantasy about an alternative London where two girls fight against a dark cloud with the help of broken umbrellas and a half-breed ghost boy. Weird as it sounds, but fun.

10 August 2009

Book of the Week (26): “Who Am I?: the Family Tree Explorer” by Anthony Adolph

I always feel there aren’t enough good stand-alone non-fiction books for young readers, but here’s one I liked very much: Anthony Adolph’s new genealogy handbook for children, Who Am I?: the Family Tree Explorer. Filled with ideas for whiling away the inevitable summer rainy-days, it’s a great introduction to the study of family history. I suspect many unfortunate parents who’ve bought this one are already being pestered for old stories and reluctantly dragged across the country to visit awkwardly-located local record offices…

There’s fascinating historical information, there are tips for activities and myriad suggestions of where to find out all about your own family background, all laid out clearly without ever feeling like you’re being overloaded with Serious Information. Old-fashioned it may be (you would hardly know the internet existed – though Harry Potter does get some attention, I’m pleased to report), but it’s clear, fact-filled and fun-filled; budding genealogists will love it, and it should create a few new enthusiasts too.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

03 August 2009

Book of the Week (25): "Stolen" by Lucy Christopher

Gemma quite fancies the young man who offers to get her a cup of coffee at Bangkok airport. Maybe that’s why she agrees. After all, it’s a busy place, and her parents are waiting for her not too far away, so what could possibly happen? When she finds herself in a remote and isolated cabin in the Australian desert she realises that drinking that coffee was a big mistake. Gemma has been abducted. Her captor, Ty, has been stalking her since she was ten years old, and six years later he finally caught up with her and intends to keep her forever. From this you might conclude that Lucy Christopher’s first novel is no more than a heroine vs. villain adventure story. You couldn’t be more wrong. The opening is just a premise for exploring the unusual and complex relationship which develops between Gemma and Ty. The desert, Ty’s hideaway from reality, is as alien to Gemma as her handsome captor, but as she attempts to escape again and again, she begins to respond to its beauty as well as to Ty’s. This is a beautiful novel, though its subject is provocative. I was, however, left with a certain sense of discomfort regarding the implications of depicting a girl falling for her stalker. Though Christopher asserts that Ty’s actions are morally wrong, the ‘yes’ that lingers behind Gemma’s ‘no’ is disturbing from a feminist point of view. Still, a remarkable and gripping read.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • The inappropriate relationship between a teenaged girl and a young man is also at the heart of award-winning novel What I Saw and How I Lied (by Judy Blundell) set in post-war America.
  • Another taboo relationship, this time between a young teacher and her student, is explored in Robert Westall’s Falling into Glory, again set after War World II, this time in a northern town in England.
  • Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien is set after a nuclear disaster in which a young girl is under threat from a possessive older man, who is unfortunately the only other survivor she knows of.

28 July 2009

Book of the Week (24): “The Man from Pomegranate Street” by Caroline Lawrence

This is the final volume in Caroline Lawrence’s popular and successful Roman Mysteries series. Being that, the seventeenth book, you might be forgiven for expecting something slightly less exciting that its predecessors, something all about tying up loose ends and less about creating something whole and new. Well, if you start this book with those expectations, well, you are in for such a good surprise! This certainly is a book that ties up the long-running series neatly – though not comprehensively as enough ends are left dangling to make you wonder about these children as they grow up – but it is also a fast-paced, exciting story all on its own.

Flavia and her friends, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus, are still working on events that were started in previous books, but now they are also searching for Jonathan and Flavia in particular is determined to find out the truth. The truth at any cost… There’s hardly time to take a breath here, as the friends race against time, against the new emperor – and the emperor’s torturer…

This series doesn’t disappoint. From the early days of The Thieves of Ostia (first published in 2001!), the books work their way across the Roman world, giving tantalising glimpses into how people lived and magically bringing the past to vibrant life. There are no dry history lessons here. In fact the history here is the opposite of dry, with very little left to the imagination about how terrifying it would have been to live in an age where painful death was an everyday reality and where slavery meant that any one person could be completely controlled by another. But for all the carefully portioned out history, it is the story that is paramount – and over the seventeen books Caroline Lawrence has grown as a storyteller, and as a writer. This final book ends the series triumphantly.

So, if you haven’t read the books – go read. Look at the website too as it is one of the best around; full of facts, trivia and hints about how to become a writer. There’s Caroline’s blog there too, which tells of her life, book events and many travels. If you want further explorations online, try this BBC site which is based on the TV series.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

• Try one of Caroline’s own inspirations: The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories by Carolyn Keene.
• Or for more history, try the harder but completely wonderful Roman stories by Rosemary Sutcliff – start with The Eagle of the Ninth.
• Or simply go for something else as fast-paced with Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant.

The Roman Mysteries in order:
  • The Thieves of Ostia
  • The Secrets of Vesuvius
  • The Pirates of Pompeii
  • The Assassins of Rome
  • The Dolphins of Laurentum
  • The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
  • The Enemies of Jupiter
  • The Gladiators from Capua
  • The Colossus of Rhodes
  • The Fugitive from Corinth
  • The Sirens of Surrentum
  • The Charioteer of Delphi
  • The Slave-girl from Jerusalem
  • The Beggar of Volubilis
  • The Scribes from Alexandria
  • The Prophet from Ephesus
  • The Man from Pomegranate Street

20 July 2009

Book of the Week (23): "Nation" by Terry Pratchett

Mark Kermode, the film reviewer on Radio 5, has been complaining about the recent batch of super-hero films, because they spend the first half of the film looking into the hero's inner torment, before remembering that they're Hollywood blockbusters and reverting to robots hitting each other for the last hour. Terry Pratchett's Nation suffers from much the same problem. This is the most thoughtful book that he has written. Our hero's struggle with theological questions throughout the book is fascinating, particularly because, as we expect in Pratchett's books, when questions are asked of the gods, they answer. Is it easier to believe in a god when you can have a chat with him? Not necessarily. In this context, the big set-piece action sequences seem a bit out of place. I feel a bit bad splitting hairs like this, because it is a terrific read. I just wish Pratchett had felt he could get away with reducing the action slightly to concentrate on the development of the main character's beliefs, which were at the heart of the story.

Recommended by Anthony Reuben

  • More theology? Well, Big Questions anyway, along with dry wit and a great anti-hero... Try C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil.
  • More adventure on an island? Try The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Aguiar.
  • Or more Pratchett? Try all of his books really. The Discworld series begins with The Colour of Magic, or you could head for the riotous fun of Only You Can Save Mankind.

13 July 2009

Book of the Week (22): "Harris Finds His Feet" by Catherine Rayner

Harris the hare is upset that his feet are so big, so his Grandad sets out to explain to him how useful big feet can be. He shows Harris how they can help you hop very high, dig holes and run very fast.

All this is really an excuse to look at themes of youth and age, the process of growing up, and the journey through life.

Harris Finds His Feet has just won the Kate Greenaway Medal, the UK's major picture book prize for outstanding illustrations. And the illustrations are beautiful indeed. Harris is exquisitely drawn, so that he bristles with personality – you take one look at him and see immediately that he’s gangly and young and inquisitive and playful and not very co-ordinated.

I find it impossible to get Guess How Much I Love You out of my head when I read the book (young, naïve hare in conversation with older, wiser hare relative). But after the first few pages, the story does leap away from that well-known title into its own territory.

Ultimately, I found the illustrations more deeply satisfying than the story. Catherine Rayner is enormously talented and I reckon she’s going to get better and better.

Recommended by Susan Reuben

12 July 2009

8-12 round-up

I've done a summer round-up of recent books for 8-12s (or thereabouts) which ran in the Indy on Sunday today. To find out what I included, you can read it here.

I'm pleased with my choices, but was struck by how very few really good stand-alone novels there were for readers of this age. A couple of very good debuts (at least one of which has a sequel on the way), but otherwise it's mostly new series or additions to old, sometimes very long-running series, and the like. So what did I miss?


PS This in contrast particularly, I think, with the new teen books that are out there - if you've read my recent posts on the Booktrust prize you'll know there are a lot of new stand-alone novels for teens that I rate very highly indeed.

07 July 2009

Book of the Week (21): “What I Saw and How I Lied” by Judy Blundell

The first thing that attracts about this book is the cover; matt, black, with a beautiful girl emerging from the darkness. It looks intriguing, more like a poster for a 1940s film noir starring Veronica Lake than a teen book. The cover holds more than that image though, for if you open the outer cover to reveal the inner one, there is another portrait, this time of an older woman – one very glamorous, very sultry; a blonde Ava Gardner, all tighly corseted passion. Yes, it really is a cover to make you pick up the book. And then all you have to do is start reading, because once you start, you won’t want to stop.

Set just after WWII, this is the story of Evie, her returned G.I. father, her glamorous yet unhappy mother, and a journey they take to the heat and humidity of Summertime Florida where they meet the filmstar-gorgeous Peter – and where their lives unravel.

You can read this book for the wonderful characters, for the mystery, for the lightly-written period detail that makes you feel as if you know the time inside out, or you can read it to know more about Evie, the girl on the cusp of being a woman, the girl who lies, to herself and others – and who is lied to by everyone. All of these reasons make it a fantastic read – all of them combined make it a fabulous one.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

• Try some of Judy Blundell’s own recommendations – read about them in the interview that follows in the next blog entry.


(The following interview appears, in a slightly different form, on Nikki Gamble's fabulous WriteAway site)

There are few books published in the last year that have left me quite as breathless as one I read a few weeks ago. What I Saw and How I Lied arrived on my doormat, as many books do, and I would probably have put it on my ‘to be read one day’ pile except that the publicist, Alyx Price, had added a hand-written note that simply demanded that I read this brilliant book. Well, I don’t often get notes of any kind in with books sent for review, so I thought OK, and I read - and was so glad that I did! Even though the book was in proof form, written by an author I’d never heard of, it was the words that grabbed me from page one – and the characters. Completely consumed by the book I read on until it was done; then sat there stunned. How could this be a first novel? How could the book be over? How come it wasn’t a twenty book series so I could follow this girl through all her life?

Well, the answer to the first was found by reading the notes. Judy Blundell is no first time author – though this is the first book to have her own name on the cover. Instead she’s an established writer of tie-in novels, and has used various pseudonyms but mostly that of Jude Watson. Well that explained one thing, the assuredness of the plotting. But the others? Well, what I really wanted to do was talk to Judy Blundell, to be able to meet this woman who clearly was a genius… and, as Fate sometimes allows, giving you the things you want most, I found quite randomly that I was able to meet her. In fact I invited her to the school where I work as librarian and got two boys to show her around before all of us, Judy, her delightful daughter, the boys and Alex from Scholastic sat down for tea. Then, with the heat-wave blistering the air around us, Judy and I sat under some trees and talked.

Leonie Flynn (LF): As Judy Blundell – your own name – and as Jude Watson you’ve written a great many books. Did you always want to be a writer?

Judy Blundell (JB): Yes. But I was a very timid person and I didn’t always write – or at least, write and show anyone. I kept it to myself, convinced that I couldn’t be a writer as writers were so far above me!

LF: Ah, yes – I think we all believed writers were gods!

JB: Exactly. It’s different now, but back then – before the internet – writers were people to be in awe of.

LF: What made you change your mind?

JB: I had a full-time job, but I was writing an adult novel – not one that I was going to show anyone. I would get up really early and work on my writing then head off to the job that paid me money. Luckily it was at a publisher, and I found myself writing tie-in novels. Writing on demand – I was good at deadlines, didn’t make a fuss, so people came back and asked for more. I was Jude Watson and people liked my books – I thought that was enough.

LF: Is there a security in writing behind the mask of a pseudonym?

JB: Certainly. I recently spoke at a Virginia Woolf conference, and in order to prepare for it I re-read A Room of One’s Own – which is still a great book, fresh as paint. I then remembered reading about Jane Austen and how her parlour door had a creaky hinge that she never wanted fixed so that she could hide her work if someone came into the room… and I thought, yes, those pseudonyms were my creaky hinge. I could hide behind them. It’s hard to put yourself out there, and it took me an extraordinarily long time to have the confidence. It was really my long-time editor, David Levithan who persuaded me. Even on this book! I got the galleys and panicked. I called him up and I said, David, something went wrong, my name is on the book – we have to change it. And he said - Oh, didn’t we talk about that? And bad as my memory is I’d’ve remembered if we had!

In the end he was the one who said, this book is different. No hiding. Not Jude, this is Judy.

LF: Good for him! However good your ‘Jude’ novels are, the fact that the body of what’s happening isn’t yours, it distances you as a person, and I think your writing here is quite different. In some ways, it’s a difficult book to review, because it feels like a first novel – you’re speaking from your soul here.

JB: It almost is a first novel. It’s in a strange sort of place.

LF: What made you decide to write your own story, rather than your own story that riffs off someone else’s world building?

JB: Well, I’d say there were a couple of different things that came together, and one of them was the actual impetus for the book itself, which was waking up in the middle of the night with the image of Evie, this girl, sitting in a hotel lobby by herself playing solitaire – a scene that actually never made it into the book – but that was my first image, and my stories often coalesce around an image. I’d like to say that I woke up the next morning and started working on it, but that wasn’t the case. I was writing as Jude Watson, on Star Wars books at the time and that felt like my real job. But then David Levithan took me out to lunch and he just leaned across the table to me and said - when are you going to write something for me? And because of my writing life my first response was – sure, what do you need?

LF: As in which new movie needed a tie-in book?

JB: Exactly. But he replied – No. Just write something. So I thought about the girl in the hotel and I said - Well I happen to have this idea… and I told him about the girl and he said – Go, bring it to me. It was very generous, and freeing. Scholastic too – they said bring us anything, any age level, any topic. Which was perfect as WISAHIL is not a straight mystery and it’s not straight suspense but they didn’t care that it went outside of category.

LF: A friend of mine described WISAHIL as a cross between Bonjour Tristesse and Key Largo – does that fit the bill?

JB: Oh, yes, I’ll take that one! It’s really funny as I thought a lot about Bonjour Tristesse. Isn’t that bizarre? Not in terms of this book, but that the world was ready for a new Bonjour Tristesse. So, what do you know!

LF: Serendipity?

JB: :Laughs:

LF: WISAHIL has won awards in America, did you expect that?.

JB: Yes, it won the National Book Award – the biggest literary award that’s given by writers. And no, I didn’t expect anything like that. It came as a complete surprise!

LF: In the UK there is a divide between children’s books and ‘real’ books, and one of the things I was most pleased about with the UK edition of WISAHIL was the cover – there is no adult in the world who is going to look and that and think – that’s only a kids’ book.

JB: I was very pleased with the cover, the Film Noir-ish images are perfect.

LF: Did you have any influence on that?

JB: No. That was the designers at Scholastic – they really did a good job. Though the other trouble is that in the States adults have to go into the children’s section to find my book – and not many adults wander in there looking for a book for themselves.

LF: Let’s hope it gets shelved by a lot of very new booksellers who won’t realise it’s a children’s book – and then they’re going to put it in the adult section too.

JB: Well, I think it’s time for some YA fiction to be cross-marketed, really aggressively, not just through happenstance.

LF: Maybe with your next book? Will it be a sequel?

JB: No. I think that one day Evie ends up in a good place.

LF: She’s so strong at the end…but whether it’s a happy strong?

JB: Well, she’ll always have a terrible burden, won’t she? One of the impetus for writing the book was the notion of someone who you love lying to you, and what a terrible strain that it. In a friendship it’s bad enough – how do you live with it, what happens to the friendship. And I though what would make it even worse was if it was a family member. One of your parents.

LF: Everyone lies. It’s one of the things I most admired about the book – the way you skilfully deal with deceit of all kinds. So, if no more Evie – what?

JB: Something quite different. I don’t really like to talk too much about anything that I’m working on, but I can say that it’s about showgirls, and it’s set a few years after this one. I found out that very young girls were leaving home and ending up dancing on the stage, and that intrigued me.

LF: First 1947 now something a few years later? Curious… what attracts you about that time?

JB: I think I’m attracted to times of transition. That period in particular because there was such a dichotomy between appearance and reality. The post war period in the States was so different to here. Rationing was over, the G.I. bill was sending servicemen to college and letting them buy houses. They started having babies and it’s seen as a time of great optimism, but once I really started reading books written during that time I realised it wasn’t all like that. And through the books I became intrigued by the movies of the time, especially Film Noir – which influenced me a lot. The literature too. James Jones, who isn’t really read much anymore, is particularly bleak. And there’s a book called Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Hobson which is about anti-Semitism in an America that had apparently just fought a war to eradicate it. Norman Mailer was starting to write. So on one side you had this whole strain of dark writing and movies, but if you look at the magazines everyone is smiling! The colours were bright, the New Look skirts huge, the dances fast and fun. That dichotomy is what gets me. It was all about pushing the effects of the war underneath. The magazines and newspapers were all about we did it, the war’s over – let’s get on with it. Optimism layered over what people seen and done.

LF: Papering over the horror?

JB: Sinking it in concrete! And for the women it was about what they had to give up. Peacetime made most women lose their independence. Bev quit a very independent life the day her husband came home.

LF: I’m curious, with the success of ‘Judy’, are you going to continue to write as ‘Jude’?

JB: Yes, I think I am. I had such fun with The 39 Clues, which is very big in the states (and which is another example of Scholastic being amazing). Rick Riordan worked on the structure, the overall arc, but within that we got so much freedom. They very carefully chose which writers that wanted and they handled all that - we just had to write the books. They’re great fun to write, like really intricate puzzles. I put on my boy hat and get plotting. It’s around that age that we lose boy readers, and I’m always looking for ways to keep boys reading – so one of the reasons I’d like to continue to write as Jude is because that’s so important to me. And it’s fun!

LF: Were you ever tempted to make The 39 Clues author yet a third pseudonym?

JB: J Blundell? (laughs) No not really – Jude was fine!

LF: I am always amazed at how writers can create so perfectly in worlds created by other writers – is there a secret?

JB: No, you just get immersed in the world of it.

LF: Do you have to like the TV series / movie first?

JB: No, no. I come to like it. I wasn’t a Star Wars geek in any shape or form, but I came to like and understand and appreciate it. And there’s so much freedom. All the early stories I wrote were about mentoring, while the later ones are about how you go on when your heart is broken, when your world has been destroyed – because all the Jedi are dead. So that was always in my mind.

LF: Are there any fans writing stories that spin off WISAHIL – have you looked online?

JB: You know, I haven’t. Now I might have to!

LF: Would you mind if they did?

JB: No, I’d be flattered! Actually, I need to get up to speed on that whole online writing issue. I have a website, but I hardly ever send my poor web-designer anything, and I still haven’t done my bio, and I’m meant to blog, and everyone else I know is Twittering… I just don’t have that kind of energy!

LF: Yet you write tirelessly!

JB: That’s different.

LF: Do you have any hints and tips for aspiring writers?

JB: Read. A lot. And write every day. Set your goal for what you can handle. I started out when I was working 9-5 and back then I set out to write two pages a day, five days a week. Just two pages. Sometimes I did more, but always two pages. Two pages a day doesn’t seem much, but some days it was!

Another tip that works for me is that I start writing first thing in the morning. Before I’ve seen the newspaper, before I even talk to my husband, before my child is up, I reach for my laptop – I don’t even have coffee. Sometimes just for half an hour before I start the day – a little ‘in’ at the beginning of the day.

LF: Do you have a room of your own?

JB: Sadly no. I have a corner of a porch that’s been made into a room and I share it with my daughter’s toys, but I’ve really learned to make do. And I love laptops, they’ve changed the way that I write. Before, I used to think that I needed silence and privacy and now I feel that I do some of my best writing in the evenings when music’s on and my husband is cooking and my child is popping in and out asking questions and yet I’m able to get work done. As if it takes the pressure off.

LF: One last question – are there any books you’ve loved recently?

JB: So many! I adored Sherman Alexie’s the Amazing Adventures of a Part Time Indian – it’s wonderful. M.T. Anderson’s books. Meg Rosoff. All sorts. At a slightly younger age, my favourites were Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time, Anne of Green Gables, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. And of course Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and all those series books, including the Hardy Boys. More recently my favourites have been Rebecca, Catch-22, Catcher in the Rye, Cat's Cradle, Ragtime, To Kill a Mockingbird, Act One, by Moss Hart (an autobiography of the playwright).


Judy Blundell’s wonderful What I Saw and How I Lied is available now. If you fancy trying her Jude Watson penned books, do read The 39 Clues: Beyond the Grave and some of the many Star Wars books. My own favourites are the Jedi Apprentice series.