29 June 2009

Book of the Week (20): "Bog Child" by Siobhan Dowd

Unlike most of our Book-of-the-Week choices, this isn’t a brand new book – it was published in the early months of last year – but it’s a book we particularly wanted to commemorate this week as it has just been awarded the Carnegie Medal, the most prestigious prize for children’s books in the UK.

To reach the Carnegie title Bog Child had a really strong shortlist to beat – Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce; Black Rabbit Summer by Kevin Brooks; Airman by Eoin Colfer; Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray; The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness; and Creature of the Night by Kate Thompson. While I’ve not yet read the Brooks or the Thompson, the others are all exceptionally good, and I’m sure the judges’ decision was extremely difficult. But Bog Child is undoubtedly a very worthy winner indeed.

Set on the Ireland / Northern Ireland border in 1981, it’s the story of Fergal who is eighteen and – like everyone around him – trapped by history and politics. His brother Joe is a political prisoner at the infamous Maze prison where a hunger strike has already claimed its first victim; and he himself is distracted from his looming exams by a friend of Joe’s who wants Fergus to smuggle packets across the border. Packets of what, though – explosives?

Digging for peat just over the border one day, Fergus and his uncle stumble across the body of a child, who has been preserved in the bog for centuries. When Felicity, an archaeologist, comes over to work on the discovery, Fergus falls for her daughter; but as he falls for Cora, his dreams are also being haunted by the voice of the bog child herself…

With fully-drawn characters, and a plot and mood sometimes floatingly happy and sometimes utterly gut-wrenching (but consistently beautifully written, every line…) Bog Child is a book not easily forgotten. And though at times upsetting, dealing with upsetting and difficult subjects, Dowd leaves you with a great sense of warmth, and even – almost – a kind of optimism; and yet this never rings false, never feels contrived. An extraordinary achievement by a very fine writer.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

P.S. Alongside the awarding of the Carnegie Medal, the Kate Greenaway Award was also announced this week, and I’m delighted that this year it has gone to Catherine Rayner for her picture book Harris Finds His Feet. The lovely Harris… is slated to be our Book of the Week number (22), a fortnight from now, so come back and read Susan’s recommendation of that from the 13th. Next week, though, Leonie recommends our BotW (21), What I Saw and How I Lied, including an exclusive interview with author Judy Blundell, too...

22 June 2009

Book of the Week (19): "Toby Alone" / "Toby and the Secrets of the Tree", by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

These two books are really a single story, divided into two volumes. Written in French, the Toby... books have been translated to 22 languages, which mean that they are hugely popular. It’s not surprising, really. The story follows Toby Lolness who is only half a millimetre tall and lives with his parents in a posh neighbourhood close to the top of a great oak tree until disaster strikes. Toby’s dad, a gifted scientist, refuses to disclose the secret of one of his inventions and the whole family is exiled to the wild and rough lower branches. Toby is upset at first, but then he meets the clever Elisha and they become close friends. Happiness doesn’t last long though, and soon Toby finds himself the most wanted person in the whole of the Tree, pursued by the greedy Joe Mitch and his goons and even by Leo Blue, who used to be his best friend. What is everyone after, and what does it have to do with the mysterious and generally hated Grass People?

The Toby... books are a huge adventure story in miniature size. The Tree is an amazing and dangerous world where mosquitoes can suck your blood dry and weevils are used instead of diggers and bulldozers. A drop of rain can literally drown you and a spiders’ web is bad news indeed. Toby has to navigate his way among all these dangers in order to save everything dear to him, including the Tree itself.

Highly original, shifting quickly between funny and sad, these books have become an instant classic.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Gulliver: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, written a few centuries ago, describe the adventures of the shipwrecked Lemuel Gulliver in a host of strange lands. Some readers may mistake it for a story for young children, but it isn’t. Swift used the inhabitants of lands such as the miniature Lilliput, the giant Brobdingnag, and the flying island of Laputa to criticise and make fun of the celebrities, politicians and fashions of his time. Recently retold by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell, this is a must-read.
  • Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White: ever wondered what happened to the Lilliputians after they met Gulliver? They found refuge in a little island in the middle of an ornamental lake in a dilapidated grand estate in England. Unfortunately, they are discovered by Maria who treats them like dolls and makes them do silly things like fly in a toy airplane. Things take a turn for the worse when Maria’s guardian and her governess conspire to steal her huge fortune and coincidently discover the Lilliputians. Now the little people and the orphaned child have mutual enemies and must unite to fight back.

20 June 2009

Booktrust Teenage Prize

So, with the massive reading challenge completed (108 books!) the Booktrust Teenage Prize judges met two days ago to discuss...

With me on the judging panel were librarian Judi James (who was our chair); journalist Alyson Rudd; teen novelist Marcus Sedgwick, himself a former winner of the BTP; and Aniketa Khushu, one of last year's teen judges.

I am not, of course, going to tell you what we chose - the longlist will be published very shortly; but it's good. And the meeting was good, too; we had some interesting discussions about particular titles and also (especially) about criteria in general. There were some books that had unanimous or near-unanimous support, which was satisfying; others that had just one or two really passionate champions. Everyone had to make some compromises and see some titles they loved fall at this fence, but on the whole we've come up with what I think is a strong, interesting, varied list. I'm very pleased with it, and hope you like it too.

I'll post again when it's been announced, and when that happens I'll also write a bit about a few titles I really loved out of this process that unfortunately didn't make it onto our longlist (in some cases which I've been wanting to blog about for ages but haven't wanted to say anything that might compromise the secrecy of the judging...). Till then, though, any guesses? What recent teen books would you have chosen?

15 June 2009

Book of the Week (18): "The Demon's Lexicon" by Sarah Rees Brennan

Alan and Nick are brothers, but look nothing alike. The older, fairer, Alan is gentle and caring, a great sniper but fragile because of his damaged leg. Nick is dark within and without – and always ready for a fight. Nick's only loyalty is to his brother; he doesn’t give a toss about their unstable mother after all, she was the one who stole a precious charm from a powerful magician, and now they all have to be on the run...

The worst thing that could happen would be getting marked by a demon - three marks and you become possessed, an empty body occupied by a demon lusting after a warmer lifestyle in the human world. The brothers were doing quite well, hiding out in Exeter, but then one of Alan’s crushes turns up with her thrice-marked brother, begging for help. Although Nick finds Mae attractive, he is totally not interested in helping the two, especially after the distracted Alan gets marked. Nick is furious but figures that as it’s only the first mark, it can be taken care of, but Alan has other plans and Nick’s life is about to go seriously pear-shaped...

A clever and twisty plot mixing fantasy and reality, some witty brotherly banter, flirtatious encounters and a surprise ending makes this novel a fun read. It’s the first of a trilogy, so watch out for more!

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog by Ysabeau S. Wilce – a cracking fantasy world, an ongoing adventure, a witty yet desperate heroine and a boy who adores hats make this a unique and utterly unputdownable book.
  • The Thirteen Treasures by Michelle Harrison – another mix of reality and fantasy with a mystery in the middle. The nasties here are not demons but fairies, and you don’t want to mess with those.

12 June 2009

A New Children's Laureate

On Tuesday Danny and I were lucky enough to be present as the new Children's Laureate - the sixth to take up the challenge - was announced. Along with pretty much half the children's book world, we gathered high up in Centre Point on London's New Oxford Street and listened to Lord Chris Smith, Andrew Motion (chair of the selection panel), Julia Eccleshare, Nikki Marsh (Booktrust head of education projects) and Viv Bird (chief executive of Booktrust) talk about what the post is, its history and its future. We also had the great delight of listening to the outgoing Laureate, Michael Rosen (who really does deserve a knighthood, at the very least!) speaking about his two year tenure before he completed the handover to the new Laureate - Anthony Browne!

Anthony spoke warmly and enthusiastically about his new role, brought his brother up on stage to play 'The Shape Game' (pens and paper provided by Booktrust, imagination supplied by the players - in the game, the first player draws an abstract shape and the next person adds to it to develop it into a recognisable image) and left us all inspired and encouraged by his enthusiasm and his words: 'Picture books are special – they're not like anything else. Sometimes I hear parents encouraging their children to read what they call proper books (books without pictures), at an earlier and earlier age. This makes me sad, as picture books are perfect for sharing, and not just with the youngest children. As a father, I understand the importance of the bond that develops through reading picture books with your child.

'We have in Britain some of the best picture book makers in the world, and I want to see their books appreciated for what they are – works of art.'

So inspired by Anthony we'll, both children and adults, enjoy more stories with pictures and enjoy stories with picture more. Oh, and play The Shape Game too!

NB: previous Laureates were: Quentin Blake (1999-2001)Anne Fine (2001-2003)Michael Morpurgo (2003-2005)Jacqueline Wilson (2005-2007)Michael Rosen (2007-2009). The award is now funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and administered by Booktrust, and continues to be sponsored by Waterstone's and others.

10 June 2009

Book of the Week (17): "Nicholas Dane" by Melvin Burgess

Melvin Burgess is well known for writing about issues that make grown-ups feel uncomfortable. He’s written about sex (Doing It), drugs (Junk) and the pleasures of sniffing dogs’ bums (Lady: My Life as a Bitch). Each time he got so much flak for it that at times people forget that he is also a very good writer. This scenario will repeat itself no doubt with his newest novel Nicholas Dane. The hero of the book, Nick, 14, loses his mother to a heroin overdose and finds himself in Meadow Hill – a care home for boys. Back in 1984 these homes were nothing to do with care. Nick quickly realises what kind of place Meadow Hill really is – it is where you are beaten and abused by both staff and boys. The only ray of light seems to be Tony Creal, a senior member of staff who invites Nick to his home and shows him some affection. This affection, as Nick soon learns, is the prequel to sexual molestation and rape. Nick knows his only way to survive is by escaping.

Nicholas Dane is not an easy novel to read, it makes you cringe again and again because Burgess tells it like it is. This is some of his best writing, born out of a strong belief that this story (based on true facts) needs to be told. The damaging consequences of child abuse are not only revealed via Nick’s story but also through the character of Ben Jones, another victim of Meadow Hill whom Nick encounters after his daring escape. Ben’s hurt and anger are channelled into violence, especially towards those closest to him. Burgess wants to make the point that Nick and Jones’ stories are not just individual mishaps but representative of a gross social injustice and so he chooses to adopt the model of Charles Dickens, who wrote about the fate of poor children in the workhouses of the nineteenth century. Nicholas Dane is loosely based on Dickens’ famous novel Oliver Twist, and introduces updated versions of its characters.

Nicholas Dane is a gripping read, but it is not perfect. Issues have been raised about its problematic female characters and harrowing descriptions of violence and abuse, but most of all its suitability for teenagers has been questioned. I’m personally of the opinion that if some children and teenagers are victimised by those whose job is to care for them, then other, more privileged, teenagers have the right to know about it. I do, however, still wonder what young people will make of this book. If you are under 18 and read this book, do leave a comment!

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Oliver Twist – if you haven’t read Dickens’ original novel, on which Nicholas Dane is based, then now is the time. It is not the song and dance and ‘please sir, can I have some more’ number which some assume it to be – Oliver Twist is born at workhouse and the novel follows his adventures through the underworld of Victorian London. It is packed with great and colourful characters that you are unlikely to forget.
  • Junk – if you liked Nicholas Dane, you may also want to have a look at one of Melvin Burgess’ best and best-known novels about the ups and downs of drug use.
  • Stolen by Lucy Christopher - A first person account of the complex relationship between a girl and the stalker who abducted her.

03 June 2009

Book of the Week (16): “Free?”

December 10th 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document which in 30 articles enshrined some basic beliefs about how people should be treated. The right to education, the right to a home, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery – these things may seem obvious to you now, but they weren’t obvious then, and even today there are very many places in the world where these rights still can’t be taken for granted.

To commemorate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration, and to remind us why it’s still so important today, Walker Books have produced this book: Free?.

Free? brings together an incredible array of writers from around the world, and each has produced a story inspired by one of the articles in the Universal Declaration. David Almond, Roddy Doyle, Eoin Colfer, Michael Morpurgo, Jamila Gavin, Malorie Blackman, Margaret Mahy and many others – amazing writers, and very varied writers too in style and in their approach to their subjects. Each brings one of these abstract-seeming ‘rights’ to life through a human story.

I chaired an event at the Hay Festival on Thursday in which Michael and Jamila discussed their stories and the importance of the Universal Declaration, and held an audience of a thousand people absolutely spellbound as they each read their piece. Jamila’s story looks at what happens when basic compassion is sacrificed in favour of some idea of ‘family honour’; Michael’s is a simple tale of a Palestinian boy who makes kites, and it made me cry. Theirs are among my favourites in the collection, but there are many other gems for you to discover here too in this varied, inspiring, important book.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn