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