28 April 2009

Book of the Week (11): “Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye” by Alison Goodman

Set in a violent, mythical world that blends the ancient cultures of China and Japan, this is the story of Eon, a girl masquerading as a boy in order to have a chance at being chosen by one of the twelve celestial dragons, and so become apprentice to one of the Dragoneyes - the powerful men who can channel the dragons' energy. In a culture that sees women as lesser beings than men, and where to be discovered would mean certain death, Eon (whose real name is Eona), battles with her own maturing body, the stifling attitudes around her and with the labyrinthine rituals and politics of a country teetering on the verge of civil war. With the friendship of a woman (who is really a man) and the undying enmity of one of the most powerful men at court, Eon can only survive as best she can. And somehow find a way to link with the dragon who has chosen her - a dragon unseen for five hundred years.

This is a great book for 12-plus kids who really like to be immersed in other worlds.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

• There is a sequel; Eon: Dragoneye Reborn.
• Dragons in myth, legend and story abound - to start with try something else with a Chinese flavour: Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson.
• For something about a mystical version of Ancient Japan, try Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn (who, like Alison Goodman, is Australian).

22 April 2009

Book of the Week (10): “Feather and Bone” by Lazlo Strangolov

Lazlo Strangolov is a recluse living in a bunker somewhere in the mountains of Romania. According to Lazlo, the end of the world is fast approaching, and he even calculated the exact date and encoded it within a fiction book entitled Feather and Bone...

Luckily, Strangolov is something of a childhood friend of author Matt Whyman who has agreed to act as his literary executor, and so the book has been recently published in the UK, accompanied by creepy black and white illustrations and mind-boggling marginal comments. Set in a remote community on the edge of the threatening woods, Feather and Bone is told by Kamil, whose father has mysteriously disappeared one evening while walking Solace, the family’s dog. Kamil suspects this has something to do with the now disused chicken processing factory where his father, like all other adults in the community, used to work. The factory, owned by the local patron Mister Petri, had to shut down due to growing demand for free range chickens. Now the ‘Squawk Box’ stands deserted, surrounded by wire, in the middle of the woods.

But if it is really deserted, then what are the lights that Kamil and his friend Flori see there at night, and why do the rabbits in Flori’s traps keep exploding? How come Cosmina Barbescue gets extra food rations, while Miss Milea keeps losing fingers? Kamil and Flori set out to investigate in this excellent blood curdling ghost story. It is the chickens, however, who seem to have the all the answers...

Feather and Bone is an eerie fairytale not suitable for the faint of heart and stomach.

And don’t forget to check out Lazlo Strangolov’s blog for more clues and prophecies about doomsday.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Chris Priestley’s collections of ghost stories Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror and Tales of Terror from the Black Ship are bone-chilling and clever with illustrations by David Roberts.
  • Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, illustrated by Dave McKean, now also a major movie, is the story of a girl who opens the wrong door in her house - and did I mention the 'buttons for eyes' bit? Creepy, and so much fun.

14 April 2009

Book of the Week (9): "The Dirty South" by Alex Wheatle

First of all, this isn't a kids' book. It's not an easy book either. So, why am I recommending it here? Because I think that everyone over the age of about sixteen should read it! But WHY... well, because it's a coming-of-age story about the here-and-now, because it's about growing up in London, because it's about growing up in the hard-edged world of council estates where drugs and violence are a way of life, because it's about how gangs happen, and how tempting the easy money of crime can be for even the best brought-up kid. Oh, and because it's beautifully written and it gives true insight into the mind and morals of one young black man.

Dennis is OK. He's one of the better off kids on the estate, he has a family - one that's not on crack, skunk or addicted to drink. But he wants to be cool - and so he starts shoplifting. With his best friend Noel, he moves on to lifting high-end designer clothing from shops on Oxford Street, but that's not enough either. So they start dealing. Dennis wants to be a shotta, a dealer - a bad man. And that's exactly what he becomes. Over a period of about ten years he goes from nice boy to bad man - though never without the possibility of redemption. For Dennis that redemption comes in the form of a girl, Akeisha - beautiful, savvy and absolutely determined to escape the ghetto world she's grown up in. She sees something in Dennis that makes him worthwhile - the same something that we the readers are allowed to see.

But redemption is a long way away, and this book is about how even the kindest can become cruel. Along the way it's also about how West Indian and African second generation kids deal with expectations, how Islam is seen as the ultimate rebellion and how, in the real world (that world, the world happening in streets not that far away), life really isn't worth very much at all.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

  • Well, there's not a lot that comes close, but other Alex Wheatle books are a must - try Island Song, about Jamaica and the lives of one couple, or East of Acre Lane about the Brixton riots.
  • Benjamin Zephaniah writes more teen-friendly books about growing up in London; try Teacher's Dead.
  • Or go and ask in your local bookshop for books by black writers. There aren't enough of them - but maybe if we make a point of asking for them then publishers will make more of a point of commissioning them!

There are various publishers in America who specialise in African-American books of all kinds, one good one is Amberbooks.com. Over here? Not so many. Via the Arcadia website you can find the books offered by Black Amber press (including Alex Wheatle's debut, Brixton Rock), and Serpent's Tail (who publish The Dirty South) have a pretty colour blind list here. The Willesden Bookshop specialises in multi-cultural children's books, and the Kilburn Bookshop has a good selection of modern black writing. The New Statesman has an interesting article on the issue of black writing and its availability. And don't forget to check out the Black History Month website, especially its links page.

If anyone knows of anything that should be added - just post!

08 April 2009

Booktrust Teenage Prize 2009

Although I'd meant to use the Book-of-the-Week slot to recommend books ranging right from the youngest up to teens, I've been tending towards the much younger end and leaving the top end for other people to recommend. Why? Because as of a few weeks ago I'm judging this year's Booktrust Teenage Prize! Which is great fun (tho' I'm trying to average slightly more than a book a day for three months, which scares me...), but it doesn't seem sensible to be airing my opinions about eligible books in public while I'm doing it. The judges meet to shortlist probably towards the end of June (also the end of the eligibility period for this year's prize), and after that I'll be able to recommend new teen stuff on this blog again. In the meantime will stick to picture books and pre-teen novels and leave the teens for other people. Tho' by the end of June I may never want to see another teen book again, of course...

FCBG conference

Just a quick note to report back on the Federation conference this past weekend. How lovely. The beautiful setting of Worth Abbey and lots of people who're passionate about children's books all huddled together talking about them for 48 hours. Excellent speakers to listen to, including Meg Cabot, Patrick Ness, Mike Rosen etc. etc. and lovely weather in which to skip a couple of sessions and instead spend the hour lying in the sun under a tree reading... Old friends to catch up with, and new ones to make - and (this entirely new category now too) people who are already Facebook friends to meet in person. Very nice indeed. My events - Jenny Downham, Damian Kelleher and Michael Grant on Saturday, Linda Newbery and Susan Gates on Sunday - went well, I think; they're all good speakers with interesting books to talk about, and the time really flew by. On both days I found myself looking with some disbelief at my watch which was telling me it was time to wrap things up and it felt like we'd hardly started talking - a good sign, I think.

Anyway, won't describe session-by-session in detail, but just to say how much fun and how well organised it all was and what a good atmosphere, and how much I'm looking forward to next year: Devizes, April 16th-18th, 2010 - put it in your diary!

07 April 2009

Book of the Week (8): "Elephant" by Petr Horáček

Horáček is the creator of Silly Suzy Goose and the especially brilliant What Is Black and White? In this, his latest picture-book, a boy introduces us to his imaginary friend, ELEPHANT. Grandma and Grandad are too busy to play, so the boy plays with ELEPHANT instead. And it is ELEPHANT who made all that mess splashing in the bathroom, and trod in the flowerbeds, and spilled the juice and ate Grandma’s cakes… It was, honest... Fortunately Grandma and Grandad – though they may have some doubt about the existence of their grandson's big friend – are endlessly forgiving.

Mixing pencil-scribbles (for the elephant hide) and paint and collage, most of the illustrations are set simply against plain white backdrops, which works to great bold effect when this changes to a colour to enrich a particular moment of sadness or wild fantasy or magic. And there are magical moments aplenty. It’s a benign world where an elephant can play happily in the bath, where golden fish leap and even the tigers are smiling. You’d be smiling if you lived in a Petr Horáček book, too.

I saw Petr Horáček read this book to a big group this past weekend (a big group of adults, it’s worth mentioning), and when he got to the last page and read that and showed us the picture, there was a very audible group ‘aaaah….’. Indeed.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn