27 December 2010

Book of the Week (82): "The Iron Man" by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Laura Carlin

This powerful fable of an extraordinary, mysterious giant metal man still haunts me from childhood, and is now brought to resonant and compelling life by Laura Carlin. Rarely has the artwork in a book become so integral to the reading. This edition celebrates the book as artefact, with all kinds of unexpected openings and surprises as we inhabit the perspective of the characters within the book, especially the young hero, Hogarth. I developed an anticipatory pleasure about turning the next page that had as much to do with the beauty of this book as the compelling story it describes. My young son was similarly transfixed, returning several times to key sections, such as the flaps that allow the iron man to literally burst out of a hill. Carlin is equally assured handling the truly menacing space bat angel dragon, focusing on aspects of it as if the whole were too terrible to grasp, and the panoramic chaos of humanity’s attempts to stop it. The poetic rhythm of the prose is captured and accentuated, as the images dominate or comment on the narrative in a carefully controlled rhythmic dance, culminating in the surprisingly moving transformation of terror into beauty at the story’s close. If children’s books, and science fiction in particular, are about evoking a sense of wonder, this book succeeds wholeheartedly. A work of art that stimulates the imagination, and, in our household, brought adults and children together in a celebration of the pure joy of reading, looking, experiencing.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

20 December 2010

Book of the Week (81): "The Golden Acorn" by Catherine Cooper

Jack Brenin is just an ordinary boy living with his Granddad in the country. One day he finds a golden acorn lying in the grass, and is thrust into an extraordinary world of magic, witchcraft, sinister creatures, and talking animals.

There is a vital task to be completed, but the raven doesn’t think Jack is strong enough. But they have no other choice - Jack is ‘The One’ from ancient prophecy and everyone expects him to help. He is not sure he can. He’s not very brave and what they are asking is dangerous and scary.

Can he find the strength to embrace the world of magic and legend? Can he conquer his fears? Time is running out and Jack doesn’t know if he can save his friends.

Rooted firmly in British mythology and history, Catherine Cooper’s world of Glasruhen is vivid, humorous, and entrancing. The combination of loveable characters, mischievous creatures, noble quest, and humour gives the magical genre back the sense of heart-warming innocence that has been missing for years.

With a feel akin to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen or the Grimm brothers, The Golden Acorn is highly deserving of the Brit Writers’ Awards 2010 for unpublished writers, and I for one cannot wait to see what happens in the following books.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

13 December 2010

Book of the Week (80): "School Blues" by Daniel Pennac, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

While Daniel Pennac’s School Blues is not a book for children or teenagers it deals with core issues that confront today’s youth each day they battle through the education system. So we thought it appropriate to give it mention here, to spread its message to as many teachers, parents or educational professionals possible.

School Blues is not a book about school, but about dunces
those children failing to engage with education, written from the perspective of a schoolboy dunce with an aversion to capital letters, who took a year to learn the letter A, and simultaneously from the perspective of experienced teacher aka dunce rescuer. It’s an insightful tightrope Pennac walks as he recalls school days dominated by shame and failure alongside later years as a passionate teacher of literature and language.

It only takes one teacher to tap in and resuscitate a flailing pupil. A teacher with the passion and determination to find a way to engage the individual in education; for Pennac there was the teacher who set him the task of writing a novel
to deliver one chapter a week, with accurate spelling throughout. The teacher recognised the narrator within and gave him a voice. His other inspirational teachers were those that somehow communicated a thirst for knowledge and the desire to pass it on. On a base level, it requires someone, other than parents, to believe the child capable of learning and to show the child their ability.

Historical memories of ignorance battle his current educational knowledge as his old dunce voice pipes in from time to time to remind us of his roots, his self-doubt, his expertise in all things dunce. Ignorance versus knowledge
a battle core to any classroom. Teachers think ‘I wasn’t trained for this’, while children think ‘I’m not made for this’. Pennac takes ‘this’ and dissects it, both within classrooms exploring its grammatical vagueness in children’s statements, uncovering the fear it attempts to disguise, and within this book concluding ‘this’ to be the violent clash between knowledge and ignorance for which teachers are little prepared. He wills new teachers to consider their own prior ignorance, to explore their failures at school in any subject, to remember how it feels to not understand when all others do.

School Blues is a delightful mix of personal anecdote and professional commentary on the educational system, and unavoidably thought-provoking. A book to be considered by all those taking their first doubting, stumbling steps into teaching as well as experienced teachers, for parents of dunces, for dunces, for educational ministers. In short for anyone who encounters the educational system from any angle – this book should be read.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

[PS - Anyone who likes the sound of this might also be interested to read the interview a friend and I did with Daniel Pennac about this book The Independent a few months back. You can find it here. - D.H.]

Slight hiatus

Sorry for the lack of Books of the Weeks lately ; we've all just been occupied with other things and had to let the blog lapse temporarily - but back now. BotW (80) will be posted shortly...


01 November 2010

Book of the Week (79): "White Crow" by Marcus Sedgwick

Halloween has been and gone, but it is never too late for a creepy read, and White Crow is one of the creepiest I've read for quite a while. With the success of Twilight many authors tried on the Gothic mode, but most of them simply copy the ‘new girl in town falls for sexy supernatural boy’ formula. Sedgwick has a different, more sophisticated, take on this popular genre as the ‘love story’ is between two girls, city girl Rebecca, forced into rural exile, and the haunting, enigmatic Ferelith. This is not a romantic relationship, however, but rather a mind game between manipulator and victim in which the roles subtly progress and shift. Rebecca and Ferelith's story is set in a dormant cliff-top village which is gradually being eaten away by the sea, and is intertwined with journal entries written by a local priest in the 18th century. Slowly, the two narratives move towards each other, united by the common theme of an eternal question – is there life after death? The quest for an answer leads to truly terrifying places. White Crow is a well written, disturbing horror thriller with more psychological depth than what is usually on offer in this genre, which only adds to its creepy factor. Not to be read at bedtime.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

25 October 2010

Book of the Week (78): "The Dangerous Journey" by Tove Jansson, in an English version by Sophie Hannah

Tove Jansson is loved the world over for her Moomin series, books like Finn Family Moomintroll, A Comet in Moominland and Who Will Comfort Toffle? (surely one of most delightful book titles of all time!), which have become some of the most popular of all children’s classics. The Dangerous Journey, reissued next week, was Jansson’s final Moomin book, an illustrated poem about a girl called Sophie who puts on magic glasses and finds herself in a strange world of volcanoes and upside-down birds and harmless snakes and a red and gold hot-air balloon. And Moomins, too – she meets familiar characters from the old books, and they all end their adventures with a party in Moominvalley. It’s an episodic narrative, with each spread bringing Sophie and her friends into a new danger – dark and threatening and a little weird – and then opening up to bright colour for the friendly, festive Moominending.

Made up of Tove Jansson’s last ever pictures of the Moomin world, this book will matter to anyone with affection for the characters, to anyone for whom this world is important (as it is for me, and probably you, too). For my money, though, what makes this so special is Sophie Hannah’s English version of the book, rendered with perfect pulse and rhyme. It’s especially not easy to make such things feel natural and unforced in translation and she pulls it off impeccably – this is a superb achievement.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

18 October 2010

Book of the Week (77): "There's Going to Be a Baby" by John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury

This book has garnered a lot of press attention because it's the first ever collaboration between veteran picture book author / illustrators John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury - the first ever, despite the fact that they're married to each other.

I always feel slightly anxious when approaching a book that is the result of two fantastic writers or illustrators working together for the first time. I worry in case the book isn't as totally outstandingly brilliant as it ought to be - in case my expectations are not matched by the reality.

So does this apply in the case of
There's Going to be a Baby?

The story is an original take on the books-to-read-to-your-child-to-prepare-them-for-a-new-sibling genre. It takes the form of a conversation between a small boy - he looks about 2 and a half / three years - and his mother. The exchange is an ongoing one - it lasts from the first announcement "There's going to be a baby" to the birth.
As the book progresses, the seasons change and the mother's bump grows gradually bigger. I would have liked the mother's maternity wardrobe when I was pregnant - she is very chic.

The conversation centres mostly on whimsical speculation about what the baby might become when it grows up. Interspersed with this are wordless, double-page spreads which take the form of a strip cartoon, and depict the baby fulfilling these careers - while still a baby - with appropriately chaotic consequences.

The book is exquisitely illustrated by Oxenbury. The mother and son are drawn with fluid lines that capture effortlessly the easy intimacy of their relationship - whether strolling in the park or cuddled up in bed with a story. This intimacy is subtly challenged by the boy's worries about the new baby: "Mummy, can't you tell the baby to go away? We don't really need the baby, do we?"

The pages where the baby embarks on different career paths are funny - my 5-year-old very much enjoyed them. These scenes are differentiated by the use of halftones dots - a bit like a piece of Lichtenstein pop art, except with a pastel palette (thank you to Sophie Pelham for this clever-sounding bit). The baby's attempts to be a chef end up with pancakes on his head, whereas when he becomes a banker, he's depicted tossing piles of gold coins in the air and laughing like a miniature super-villain.

There is one problem I have with the book, which is that a small child, speculating about the arrival of a new sibling, doesn't think of the baby in terms of what it will do when it grows up. It's hard enough to imagine it existing as a baby, still less as an adult.

I wouldn't, therefore, recommend this as
the book to read to a child, if the express purpose of doing so is to help prepare them for a new baby. If it's read in the context of other books on the subject, then great - or indeed just for pleasure without a new baby on the horizon at all. It's fun, warm and reassuring - and beautiful, too.

And were my expectations of the Burningham / Oxenbury collaboration met? Not quite, but almost.

If you want a book which is in many ways the opposite of this one, try
Topsy and Tim: the New Baby by Jean and Gareth Adamson. It's an account of Topsy and Tim and their friend Tony who has a new baby brother. The book is not poetic, it isn't beautiful. But is extremely practical. Everyday realities such as breastfeeding and bathing are covered and Tony's emotional response is subtly dealt with. At first he feels moody and left out, but his mother gets him to help with bathing the baby, allowing him to feel part of things.

If you pair this title with
There's Going to Be a Baby when preparing a child for a new sibling, you should end up with the best of all worlds. Though there's still no guarantee that the new baby will be welcomed without jealousy or bad behaviour!

Recommended by Susan Reuben

11 October 2010

Book of the Week (76): "The Little Prince" (a graphic novel), by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Joann Sfar, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

A key tension in literature written for children and Young Adults is the nature of the relationship between adult author and child reader. The dangers of imposing adult authority on the child in fiction is so great that Jaqueline Rose in her book on Peter Pan famously argued that children’s literature itself is “impossible”. Fortunately, Joann Sfar disagrees. His moving and delicately nuanced rendering of this classic work puts the relationship between adult pilot and the mysterious prince at the heart of the story.

The haunting landscape of the desert, presented in glowing bars of colour, frame the crashed pilot's increasingly desperate plight, and provide a poignant context for the tender relationship with the Prince. Sfar has utilised material and visual metaphors from Exupery’s autobiographical Sand and Stars, his memoir of the crash that led to the creation of the Little Prince, to create a complex, layered work of great poetic beauty, not so much an adaptation but a transformation of The Little Prince. The suggestive power of Sfar's combination of vulnerability and strength, wisdom and naïveté, overturn the adult-child hierarchy in the book, as the Pilot and the reader come under the Prince's spell. Sfar’s fluid and adaptable style allow us to see the Prince’s precious flower in a visually complex way; as the Prince’s understanding of his relationship, and his experience of love change, so does the way Sfar represents the flower. The caricatured grotesque adults that the Prince meets are very wittily evoked. Peter Pan claims that “to die would be an awfully big adventure.” Sfar’s book allows us to go on that adventure with the Prince, and to celebrate the numinous wonder of great storytelling. You’ll fall in love with the Prince all over again in this lushly presented book.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

05 October 2010

Book of the Week (75): "The Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins

I find trilogies tricky. More often than not I love the first volume, even more so the second, and find that the third doesn’t live up to the promise the previous two hold. I was therefore very much relieved to finish the third instalment of the Hunger Games series (entitled Mockingjay) as it is a real cracker.

Instead of going down the route of mushy love triangle, beautiful heroine, and a clear cut victory, as one expects these days from a bestselling series as this one, Collins carries on down the treacherous path she laid out in the first two volumes – Katniss Everdeen remains tough, often self-centred, at times unpleasant, and a brilliant protagonist. Her two leading men are no prince charmings either, and often as in real life, the opposition is not that different from the government in power.

The plot begins with a rebellious Katniss stranded in District 13 against her wishes, and mightily ticked off at the fact that Peeta was left behind and is now at the mercy of President Snow and the Capitol. Being underground makes her claustrophobic, and the constant pressure to become the Mockingjay - the televised face of the districts’ revolt - is getting on her nerves. As usual, she has to do things her way, and via twists and turns, she finds herself with a small, but not really trustworthy, crew, fighting in the streets for her life and for the ultimate cause – to take her revenge on President Snow.

This novel is a page-turner alright, but there is more to it. The violence escalates with tragic results – expect the death of many loved characters, and the scarring, emotional and physical, of many more. After all, this is what Collins is out to show – war is ugly (and reality TV is bad for you). Enjoy!

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

03 October 2010

Outside In event

Now that IBBY's 2010 congress is all done (I was in Santiago de Compostela for that a couple of weeks back), attention is being turning to the next congress, which is to be held in London in 2012. One of the key themes for that congress will be translation, and (for this reason and others) the translation of children's books has been exercising me a lot lately. So I'm delighted that Outside In - a brilliant organisation you should be checking out if you don't know them already - will be hosting an event at the Free Word Centre tomorrow at 5pm, as part of the FLOW festival and Children's Book Week. Should be a great event - do go along if you possibly can.

Outside In is a small and innovative organisation with a simple aim – promoting, exploring and celebrating world literature and particularly children’s books in translation. This event at the start of Children’s Book Week will showcase the work of Outside In, together with the 2009 flagship project ‘Reading Round the World’, in which a whole host of authors, illustrators and translators from all over the globe visited UK schools and libraries and conducted workshops with children and adults. Alexandra Strick and Edgardo Zaghini will introduce the ‘Reading Round the World’ concept outlining its aims and key achievements, as well as offering expert advice on workshop formats and book recommendations to get children reading more in translation.

It's free, but you do need to book - you can do that here.


28 September 2010


Just a couple of things for the diary...

I'm going to be at the Henley Literature Festival on Saturday, in conversation with Emma Freud about the UBGs and kids'/teen books in general. Very much looking forward to it - come along if you can. Details here.

And then the weekend after that, Cheltenham starts; I'm chairing two events on Sunday 10th:
  • 1pm, The Playhouse: SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERIES - Andrew Lane and Simon Cheshire on their books and why Sherlock Holmes has been such an inspiration to them.
  • 4pm, BookIt! tent: AFTER TWILIGHT - Marcus Sedgwick, L A Weatherly and Steve Feasey on their vampires, angels and werewolves, respectively...
And there's loads more, of course - check out the full festival programme.


27 September 2010

Book of the Week (74): "My Name Is Mina" by David Almond

My Name Is Mina tells you more about the art of writing than most university courses. It’s also a treatise on how not to fit in – and how sometimes not fitting in is the sanest thing you can do with your life. It’s also a book about about words and flight, nature and nurture, thought and reaction. To most people, though, its most important aspect is that it’s the prequel to David Almond’s much-acclaimed novel, Skellig.

Mina doesn’t fit. Her dad’s dead, her mum is lovely, lonely and kind. Mina sits in trees, writes words, writes nothing, and thinks about the universe, about life, death and the bones of birds. She is wise far beyond her years and yet still a small girl, figuring out each day one breath at a time. Her story is told lightly, skimming through her truth, her lies, her understanding of her self with great skill. David Almond is here, on the page. He’s the teacher who sees her, he’s her mother, he’s the blackbirds in the tree and the shadowy cat, Whisper. Mina says – take a line for a walk and you’re drawing. Take words for a walk and you’re writing. Here are the kernels of creativity – even blank pages are crammed with meaning. In Mina, stars sing and bones rattle – and it is as if every single story that David Almond has ever written is held in here.

Did I like it? Of course. Did I think it a good gook to read after Skellig? Yes. Did I think it a good book to read before Skellig? No. Absolutely not. The depth of this book takes away from Skellig something that needs to be experienced there for the first time. I don’t want any of Skellig’s mysteries de-mystified. Read Skellig first should be emblazoned on the cover.

But read this too. For here is joy. Is it a book for kids? Of that I’m less sure. I think adults will love it, some teens will fall for its myth and meandering, its plotless prose and immense notions. Kids? Not so much. Does that make this less of a wonder? Not really.

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

21 September 2010


A new Percy Jackson? OK so not quite, but almost! How about more Camp Half Blood and a new generation of demigods? Well, Rick Riordan's new book AND new series - HEROES OF OLYMPUS: THE LOST HERO is published by Puffin Books on October 12th. There's three new heroes, Jason, Piper and Leo, and more fast-paced adventure - well, what else would you expect from Rick Riorden?

But there's more! Go to Rick's website to find out more about the books. Or if you fancy watching Rick talking about the new series, keep an eye out for his webcast: "Rick Riordan: Virtually Live" on November 2nd. When Eoin Colfer did this webcast earlier in the summer, he reached more than 22,000 school students and Rick will be looking to top that number! Sign up is already available at http://www.rickriordanvirtuallylive.co.uk. Kids, tell your teachers! Teachers - sign up!

20 September 2010

Book of the Week (73): "The Eternal Ones" by Kirsten Miller

The visions are getting stronger and she can’t deny them.

Haven Moore is different. She has talents she can’t explain, memories of places she has never been, and an irresistible urge to leave the rural religious community of Snope City behind in search of New York. A far away city she feels inexplicably drawn to, a city that she remembers, but has never visited.

Her visions of Ethan and Constance, of their life and tragic murder decades before, are overwhelming her quiet life. Haven needs to find out the truth behind the lovers’ fate, and all the answers lie in New York. But she is scared. For Constance and Haven are the same person, and the memories of the horrific death are her own.

When Haven sees the famous movie star Ian Morrow she knows that he is her Ethan, and can no longer resist the pull of her past. Travelling to New York she is plunged into an epic love affair that threatens to rain disaster on her and everyone she cares about. Can she unlock the secrets to her past without destroying her present? Can she solve the mystery without loosing Ethan forever?

The Eternal Ones is an epic romance thriller that takes us from the deeply religious communities of rural America to the bourgeois world of old New York, from the ruins of ancient Rome, to the modern celebrity tabloid-driven New York City.

Kirsten Miller gives us an eminently readable and entertaining tale of reincarnation that blends beautifully rendered past-life memories with a page-turning murder mystery; and proves to be a refreshing change from the proliferating vampire romance genre.

The protagonist Haven Moore can be a little challenging at times, with a pendulum-like swing in her decisions to trust other characters that could make you dizzy; but persevere and you won’t regret it. The end is worth the work, and the sequel promises to be just as fascinating and entertaining as this book.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

15 September 2010

Book of the Week (72): "Noah Barleywater Runs Away" by John Boyne

The latest book from John Boyne, widely known for his bestselling Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is a story in a quite different tradition, and it’s a delight.

It’s the story of eight-year-old Noah who has run away from his home, run into the forest where he finds a strange shop owned by a nameless old man. This old man, a puppet-maker, tells him stories from his own life (he was once the fastest runner in the world), and about his father whose shop it used to be. The stories help Noah learn what’s important in life, and it becomes clear to readers what it is he’s running away from, and what he has to do.

A talking dog and donkey (not to mention animate doors, clocks, etc.), a mysterious tree, strange villages nestling deep in the forest, Noah Barleywater’s world is the world of fairy-tale, a world which seems to be like ours, sometimes, but isn’t quite. (And there’s one classic children’s story in particular buried at its heart.) From what seems a typical fairy-tale opening – young hero setting off from home on to discover adventure in the world beyond – Boyne has created something sometimes dark and sometimes moving and often mischievously funny, a vivid rendering of a child’s perception of the baffling, confusing peculiarity of the world around him, and a journey into a place whose very strangeness will feel familiar to you as you read. Noah Barleywater Runs Away is a book filled with magic, of all kinds.

(And as a bonus, there are decorations by picture-book artist Oliver Jeffers. Nice touch.)

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

12 September 2010

Roald Dahl Day

Just a reminder to everyone that Roald Dahl Day will be celebrated on September 13th - which was Roald Dahl's birthday.

There’s a mass of fantastic events (some today!) and all are listed on the website. For although Roald Dahl Day itself is September 13th, the celebrations have grown from the original idea of a day to the more actual reality of a month - there are actually celebrations right through September all over the country.

If you’re at a loose end today, try visiting Great Missenden, where Roald Dahl lived and wrote. There’s a day of festivities, with special events at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. There’ll be Matilda-storytelling, village trails, craft activities, magic, face-painting, behind-the-scenes tours of the Roald Dahl archive AND, courtesy of the RSC, an opportunity to find out more about their forthcoming production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda

06 September 2010

Book of the Week (71): "Raven's Gate: The Graphic Novel", by Anthony Horowitz, Tony Lee, Dom Reardon and Lee O'Connor

There is no proof. There is no logic. There is only the gate.

After getting into trouble with the police Matt Freeman is sent to Yorkshire to be fostered by the sinister Mrs Deverill. It soon becomes clear that something is very wrong in the town of Lesser Malling. Beset by mysterious dreams and gruesome murders he learns that the Old Ones, a race of diabolic gods once banished from our world, are trying to return, and Matt alone holds the key to the salvation of mankind.

Writer Tony Lee and artists Dom Reardon and Lee O’Connor deliver a stunning re-envisioning of Anthony Horowitz’s bestselling novel. Lee’s stark language matches perfectly with the striking illustrations of Reardon and O’Connor. A monochromatic colour palette lends a brutally hard and claustrophobic atmosphere that serves to heighten the chilling supernatural world of Lesser Malling.

An austere and stunning graphic novel adaptation, Raven’s Gate will have you clutching at the bedcovers as you race through the pages. This engrossing nightmarish vision of Horowitz’s supernatural tale will please diehard graphic novel fans and the uninitiated alike. If you love the Power of Five series, this is an absolute must read.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

30 August 2010

Book of the Week (70): "I Shall Wear Midnight" by Terry Pratchett

I Shall Wear Midnight is the latest outing for Tiffany Aching, the witch, and her allies, the Nac Mac Feegles, the small blue psychopaths with Scottish accents whom we first met in The Wee Free Men. This is officially one of Pratchett’s book for young readers, but some of the themes are definitely adult. When we first met Tiffany she was nine and deciding whether there was a future for her in witchcraft. In her latest outing she is 16 and the storylines have grown with her. Early on in the book, for example, she is having to decide what to do about a father who has beaten up his pregnant 13-year-old daughter, killing the baby. It’s a coming-of-age story, following her growing understanding of prejudice, how communities work and the hysteria of crowd mentality. Despite the gravity of some issues covered, the book is great fun, as you would expect from Pratchett, and there are welcome cameos from some of the senior witches and other entertaining characters we have met in the ‘grown-up’ Discworld novels. It’s another excellent read with plenty of humour.

Recommended by Anthony Reuben

11 August 2010


Apologies for the summer pause in the Books of the Week series. Normal service will resume shortly.

But in the meantime...

The Edinburgh Book Festival starts this weekend! And there's a packed children's programme - and schools' programme - with loads of lovely things to see...

I'm going up for a few days, and I'm delighted to have been asked to chair twelve (!) events - some for the public programme and some in the schools' programme. I get to do events with a lot of my favourite writers, so should be great fun - do come along if you can.

I'll be doing...

Saturday 21st - 2pm - Babette Cole

Sunday 22nd - 4:30pm - Patrick Ness

Monday 23rd - 10:30am -
John Boyne
Monday 23rd - 1:30pm - Keith Gray & Patrick Ness ("Losing It")

Tuesday 24th - 1pm -
Gregory Hughes
Tuesday 24th - 6pm - Sharon Dogar

Wednesday 25th - 12pm -
Mal Peet
Wednesday 25th - 4:30pm - Gareth P. Jones
Wednesday 25th - 6:30pm - William Nicholson

Thursday 26th - 10am -
Marcus Sedgwick
Thursday 26th - 12pm - Philip Reeve
Thursday 26th - 4:30pm - Roddy Doyle

... and rest. Phew.

Sound fun?

13 July 2010

Book of the Week (69): "Losing It", edited by Keith Gray

To publish – not to say edit and contribute to – an anthology for teenagers consisting exclusively of stories about losing virginity is a pretty brave thing to do. (Frankly, publishing short stories at all is daring enough these days, whatever the subject…) All credit, then, to Andersen Press, editor Keith Gray and the other seven contributors to Losing It.

But to focus on the sensation of this book’s very existence is to sell it short, because it’s also very good indeed. The stories are by some of the best YA writers working at the top of their game, and they’ve produced stories that are varied, imaginative, surprising. Some are very funny indeed, others gentle and touching, there’s contemporary and historical, a range of perspectives, and – most important of all – they are not patronising, preachy, moralistic, judgmental or anything even close. They take the subject – sex, a subject which all human beings are biologically programmed to find interesting – and they talk about it properly. Not trying to impart information that’s good for you, but to explore it by getting into the skin of a variety of characters, which is, after all, what fiction does best. My favourites are probably 'Different for Boys' by Patrick Ness (really original, and very funny) and 'The Age of Consent' by Jenny Valentine (again, made me laugh out loud), but I liked them all and there are several others that are terrific, too. We need more books like this.

[The full contributor list is as follows: Melvin Burgess, Anne Fine, Keith Gray (also the editor), Mary Hooper, Sophie McKenzie, Patrick Ness, Bali Rai and Jenny Valentine.]

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

06 July 2010

Book of the Week (68): "Wasted" by Nicola Morgan

Jack’s desire to feel some sense of control leads him to devise a game, a game that becomes dangerous. He can choose whether or not to play the game but the decision to play means following the rules and obeying the toss of a coin, wherever it leads him. He thinks sacrificing himself to luck this way will keep him lucky, but will it?

Nicola Morgan has written an original multi-layered book exploring concepts entrenched in philosophy and quantum theory through a captivating narrative of ‘what ifs?'. To what extent is life governed by chance or luck, and what control do we really have over what happens to us and around us? Is there anything we could do differently to change what might happen?

Gorgeous wild-haired Jack happens to overhear the beautiful Jess singing just when he’s desperate for a new singer in his band and an instant attraction draws them together. Yet ‘The moment when Jack hears Jess sing so nearly doesn’t happen’, just as many things nearly happen or nearly don’t happen. Morgan’s omniscient narrative style means the reader gets to see them all, we see alternative events unfold and disappear and all the little details that lead to these events as they did or could have happened. This style adds to the sense of being pulled into Jack’s game, feeling its appeal, sensing its danger as the idea of ‘what if?’ seeps into your mind. You can’t help but start experiencing the instability of life, the uncertainty of what could happen, and with it the need to believe you have some control. But Morgan does well to bring in just enough commentary to stop you slipping into the abyss. You can’t live with awareness of all the possibilities of what might be if only… You would go mad.

Through exploring this theme of chance and luck, Morgan interweaves a story of love, of loss, of choices and addiction. The characters are true characters relatable and believable that breathe life into a philosophical idea making it accessible and mind-blowing. The book is interactive both in its ability to make you think and its request that you participate and play Jack’s game to determine the ending.

The more I reflect on this book the more I realise how clever it is - it’s definitely one to read. If you’re not convinced, maybe you should toss a coin and leave it up to chance…

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

  • You may want to explore Nicola Morgan’s blog on Wasted, or her website, has details of her other novels such as Deathwatch and Fleshmarket.
  • Or you could try Being by Kevin Brooks, which also looks at questions of free will and determinism.

29 June 2010

Book(s) of the Week (67): "Bob and Barry's Lunar Adventures" by Simon Bartram

I first met Bob, the man on the moon, and Barry, his strange one-eyed canine companion, in Simon Bartram’s lovingly drawn picture books. Now two new chapter books allow young readers to experience their adventures in an exciting new series.

In The Disappearing Moon, the Mysterious Alacazamo, earth’s most powerful magician, makes the moon disappear, and Bob’s job is on the line. Under orders from his tough, cake-loving boss Tarantula Von Trumpet, Bob has to race against the clock to solve the mystery of its disappearance. Is there a clue in the magician's autobiography, The Hocus Pocus Hombre? Wonderfully witty illustration and hilarious characters like Hyacinth Trombone and Cornelius Trolley will have you rooting for Bob on his madcap adventure.

A Right Royal Disaster plunges Bob into terror when he discovers he has to host the birthday party for frighteningly bad-tempered Queen Battleaxe on his beloved moon. He has to make sure the party goes with a bang or he’ll lose his head! He enlists the help of celebrated royal artist Sir Lucien to create the largest ever sculpture of the Queen – on the moon. All seems to be going well until Bob decides to help out, with hilarious and terrifying results. Only Bob’s detective work about the Queen’s mysterious past can avert certain disaster. This story is tender, tense and has a very unexpected ending.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

[NB A third in the 'Bob & Barry' series, The Heartless Robot, is due out in September.]

21 June 2010

Book of the Week (66): "Paper Towns" by John Green

Three facts are true about Quentin Jacobson: 1. He is a living breathing boy living and breathing in Jefferson Park, Florida. 2. He is going to Duke next year after he graduates high school. 3. He is incontestably in LOVE with his next-door neighbour Margo Roth Spiegelman.

So when the mysterious Margo appears at his bedroom window to enlist his help in a campaign of revenge, Quentin is powerless to refuse. What follows is an adventure more thrilling than he could ever imagine. And as the greatest night of his life finally draws to a close, Q dares to hope his life has changed forever, and maybe, just maybe he and Margo can be something more than neighbours.

But in the morning, Margo has disappeared, missing, and no one knows why. Plagued by worry Q starts to investigate his enigmatic neighbour, discovering the secrets she kept hidden from everyone, along with a strange trail of clues she has left that only he can follow. But who is the real Margo? And does she really want to be found?

With characters so vivid that you’ll forget they’re made of paper, John Green presents a rare gem of a book that tells us of the struggles of growing up trying to find the courage to stand up for yourself, of the pains of high school while trying to forge your own identity; all the while exploring just how deeply being in love for the first time can change you.

Few are the books that can claim to change your life, but Paper Towns certainly did for me; with its expertly crafted combination of mystery, humour, poignant sentiment, and the uniquely thought provoking philosophy of the incandescent Margo Roth Spiegelman. I hope that you find it as impossible as I did not to view yourself through the mirror that John Green flawlessly constructs, and I challenge you not to change from what you see.

Too much praise? I don’t think so. Paper Towns possesses insight, wit, and genuine human emotion captured in a relentless narrative of intrigue suitable for both old and young readers alike. Even should this book not change the way you view the world, it’s certainly a read you will not soon forget and never regret.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

14 June 2010

Book of the Week (65): "Laghu, the Clever Crow", by Bhavit Mehta, illustrated by Carol Liddiment

The newly established Saadhak Books has the tagline ‘Bringing timeless Indian wisdom to children of all cultures’. This book, Laghu the Clever Crow, is the first of their Granny Geeta series and is their first publication.

The story of Laghu is taken from a collection of animal fables, written in Sanskrit in the 3rd century BCE (so it is estimated), though it is believed the stories originated long before this and were passed on by storytellers. The tale of Laghu and the doves is also found in fables from other cultures.

Traditionally in the Indian Subcontinent the grandmother is the chief storyteller and Granny Geeta is the fictional embodiement of a good storytelling grandmother. She retells old tales and fables using her insight and humour to breathe life into them and deliver their message.

Here Granny Geeta tells her Grandson the story of Laghu the clever crow and how he rescues the doves. It is a simple tale highlighting that things should not be judged on how they appear. Straight-forwardly written and easy to read aloud I can imagine parents (or grandparents) reading it to children by the fireplace. The illustrations are bright and colourful – they certainly reminded me of Southern India and made me smile.

Saadhak Books look set to put Indian picture books on our shelves (where they have been previously lacking), repackaging traditional fables and tales in an accessible familiar picture book format, to introduce children to different cultures through simple stories. I wonder what tale Granny Geeta will share next…

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

07 June 2010

Book of the Week (64): "The Moonstone Legacy" by Diana de Gunzburg and Tony Wild

Shalimar is a place of beauty. A princely Indian mansion high in the Yorkshire moors. It has been home to the Abercrombie family for over a century, and for sixteen-year-old Lizzy it is an exotic wonder; but what dark secrets do its majestic towers and sumptuous murals hide?

After a tragic accident steals Lizzy’s mother away from her on the full moon, she begins to question Shalimar’s beauty. Was her mother’s death more than an accident? Was she the latest of her ancestors to fall victim to the mysterious family curse?

Lizzy sets out on a quest to discover the truth about her family, its deadly curse, and her strange Uncle George who seems to be at the heart of it all. Her journey takes her from the windswept Yorkshire moors, to the rocky peaks of India and back again. But can she solve the mystery in time and save her family? For the full moon is rising again, and a deadly new enemy draws closer.

By turns a meditation on the pains of growing up torn between two social classes, and the vivid cultural exchange between Britain and the Old Empire, Diana de Gunzburg and Tony Wild present a subtle thrilling tale of secrets and death, and broken families and curses that leads us from the austere beauty of the Yorkshire moors to the mystic opulence of Northern India.

The Moonstone Legacy explores the enduring relationship between Britain and India. A tale of intrigue and betrayal that will leave you questioning the strange power the moon holds over all our lives, the complex nature of families, and hoping against hope that curses are nothing but superstitious nonsense.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

31 May 2010

Book(s) of the Week (63): The DFC Library by various authors/illustrators

One of my favourite reading experiences of the last few years was the DFC comic; exciting stories, brilliant artists, all unfolding under one cover, aimed at a wide spectrum of readers. It was hugely popular, and deservedly so. Now three of the DFC authors get their own books!

Good Dog Bad Dog Book 1 by Dave Shelton, is a hilarious noir detective romp, with Kirk Bergman, his secret flea weapon, and the frighteningly strong, bumbling, milkshake-loving Duncan McBoo. Kirk has a dark past, and is recovering from the death of his former sidekick, Big Beagle. Duncan’s window-shattering arrival changes everything, and they are soon out-quipping one another as they hurtle through a series of madcap adventures that pit them against some of the meanest dogs in town, from Pug Ugly to the diminutive evil genius, Wah Wah Johnson. Full of slapstick visual gags and great wordplay, you’ll soon develop a soft spot for these two lovable detectives, as they track down treasure, kidnapped chef Anton le Boof, and a whole lot of trouble.

The Spider Moon Book 1 by Kate Brown is a moving, exciting fantasy story. A beautifully drawn, and vividly realised alternative universe. We meet the gifted and mischievous Bekka Kiski, who lives on the lower islands of the Kapchu archipelago. Her community make their living by diving for spinefish, and Bekka has a powerful and mysterious connection to the creatures of the deep, from Fii her Dodecapod to a giant whale. She and her family are falsely accused by the winged Dathar people of cheating, and her mother is taken prisoner. Bekka tries to clear their name; she knows they are not guilty, but who is? As she investigates, she meets the dashing Prince Kaliel, and together they uncover a dark and dangerous plot. If this wasn’t enough to contend with, there is also the terrifying legend that the sky will fall on them, a legend that seems to be coming true. Only the floating island and Bekka’s ingenuity hint at the possibility of escape. Superbly realised fantasy landscapes, from the depths of the sea to the labyrinthine Dekkan palace, and subtle characterisation, mean you’ll definitely want to visit spider moon, you just won’t want to leave. This is bold ambitious storytelling, that leaves you wanting more. I can’t wait for the next instalment!

Mezolith Book 1 by Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank. This book is something special. I read a lot of comics, but this one of the best I’ve encountered; moving, haunting, thrilling and compelling. Once you enter the story, it wont let you go. Ben Haggarty takes you back 10,000 years to the dark world of Poika and his tribe, the Kansa. Adam Brockbank’s stunning artwork leads you right into Poika’s world – under the thundering hooves of a giant buffalo, facing off against a giant, ravenous demonic baby Urga, and struggling against the malevolent evil of the Owl people. The lush visual detail will have you revisiting pages in wonder, noticing telling clues which the next chapter builds on. The layered narrative creates a powerful mythic journey, revisiting fairytales you thought you knew, but in Mezolith nothing is as it seems. On his journey, Poika is assisted by the enigmatic bird-woman Korppi Vehlo. Using his wits, bravery and her visonary gifts, he faces increasingly dangerous foes, taking him into the dark heart of a world that will haunt and horrify you long after you turn the last page.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

24 May 2010

Book of the Week (62): "The Prince of Mist" by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

We follow Max and his family as they move to a small town by the sea away from the city to escape from the war. However, it seems it’s not to be the reassuring haven they had hoped for - their new house carries the devastating history of a small boy who drowned and there’s a disturbing garden of statues hiding in the mist.

On arrival in the town it is immediately evident to Max that something peculiar is going on; his little sister is befriended by a stray cat with an unsettling presence and unwavering glare and the train station clock is going backwards… The oddities continue and become increasingly threatening as Max investigates his new surroundings and makes a new friend.

Max’s little observations of family and friends, his brave curiosity to explore what many would run from, his reactions to situations and his determination to uncover the truth of what’s going on, adds a sense of a personal journey to the story and enables the reader to experience events alongside him. While some elements of the story did seem common to many scary tales, Zafon achieves a subtle yet strong build-up of suspense and weaves a unique, vivid plot, creating terrifying moments that keep you glued to the page.

All in all it’s an evocative, atmospheric and easy to devour novel with characters you’ll be holding your breath for.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

17 May 2010

Book of the Week (61): "So Much to Tell" by Valerie Grove

This is not a recommendation of a children's book, but of a book about one of the most influential children's book figures of the last 50 years - Kaye Webb.

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s and 70s may remember that inside the front cover of every Puffin book, it said 'Editor: Kaye Webb'. It was, explains Valerie Grove, not her decision to have her name in each book in this way, and it was unusual - traditionally it is the role of the editor to sit in the background as an anonymous presence. But Kaye Webb was not the kind of person to sit in the background under any circumstances.

Kaye had an incredibly strong - some might claim overpowering - personality. She was warm (she addressed everyone as 'darling') enormously gregarious (she found her later years when she was disabled and housebound impossibly difficult due to the lack of company) and upper class (she is described as addressing her listeners in a radio broadcast in the same tones that Annette Mills used to speak to Muffin the Mule). She was a great user, having the power to persuade and charm all around her into running errands and making her - often madcap - plans come to pass. But she was also a great giver, with tremendous energy and passion for her work.

Kaye was married three times, the final time for 10 years to the artist Ronald Searle, who suddenly and brutally deserted her and their twins with no prior warning - leaving for France to live with another woman.

After a prominent career in journalism, Kaye was brought in to run Puffin books, and took on the role with incredible panache, founding the Puffin Club with its secret code and badge, regular magazine and frequent trips for children, that allowed them to have adventures away from home and meet their favourite authors. She presided over many of the most prominent children's book of the 20th century, including Watership Down, Carrie's War, The Borrowers, Tom's Midnight Garden and Stig of the Dump - to name only a tiny fraction.

Kaye showed less commitment to her family than to her work. She appears barely to have seen her twins as they grew up, leaving them in the care of her mother or with staff. She and Ronald were away on their 10th birthday - they were taking a three-month holiday. Later, John was sent away to boarding school where he was deeply miserable. She seems to have had a closer bond with the many children whom she took on Puffin Club trips than with her own. I was reminded of Enid Blyton who paid huge attention to her child readers, but - at least according to one of her two daughters - very little to her own children.

In a letter to her father at the age of 56, Kaye wrote 'Esteem in other men's eyes? Isn't it more important to have it in your own? I shall grow older and die and the only flag I'll have to wave is I did a job fairly well and wangled myself a lot of attention... but I shan't have read the books I wanted to, or had the thoughts I wanted to, or even really explored relationships with other people properly... all this in the sacred name of being successful'.

I found myself having very mixed feelings when reading about Kaye Webb. As a children's book editor, I know that if I'd been lucky enough to work for her, she would have inspired in me the same loyalty and passion she did in all her staff. But reading about her as a whole person - not just a publisher - I found her egotism and disregard for family responsibilities off-putting, and her loneliness at the end of her life desperately sad.

Recommended by Susan Reuben

  • For another biography of a prominent figure in the children's book world, also by Valerie Grove, try Dear Dodie, about Dodie Smith, author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle.
  • To find out more about Puffin, take a look at Puffin by Design by Phil Baines, which publishes on 27 May. It explores the visual history of Puffin books.
  • If you're inspired to find out more about Kaye's husband Ronald Searle, read Ronald Searle, The Biography by Russell Davies.

10 May 2010

Hay Fever!

Very exciting - the complete line-up for Hay Fever, the children's programme of the Hay Festival, has now been announced. You can find full details of the programme here. Needless to say it's packed full of wonderful treats!

I'll be there, in the chair for three events...
  • Sunday May 30th, 1pm: Mal Peet & Bali Rai
  • Monday May 31st, 2:30pm: Ian Beck & Glenn Dakin
  • Friday June 4th, 5:30pm: Patrick Ness
... so do come along if you can! Look forward to seeing you there...

Book of the Week (60): "Not Bad for a Bad Lad" by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman

What if fairytales could come true? This is a beautiful, tender, and moving story, an exciting creative collaboration between the two talented Michaels, their twenty third book together. As you might expect from them, it is beautifully presented and published. Morpurgo revisits the territory he made his own so memorably with War Horse, and brings it home. A young boy sits mesmerised as his grandfather reveals his wayward childhood growing up after the blitz. The first-person voice of his former self catapults us back in time so that we relive his experiences, as a fatherless boy whom only Miss West, his music teacher, believes in. He plays on bomb sites, is chased by the police, and ultimately caught stealing, sentenced to a spell in borstal in Hollesey Bay, Suffolk. Each of these experiences is suggestively and captivatingly illustrated by Foreman, whose own War Boy series and multiple awards for illustration admirably equip him for depicting this period. Every page is illustrated, and the images form a musical accompaniment to the story, bringing out key personalities and moments of transformation with telling detail and insight. Full-page scenes, and double page spreads in watercolour and pencil capture a range of moods and experiences, from a comic chase through bombed-out London to the moment he is caught by another young boy at night, raiding the family greenhouse for tomatoes. This moonlight encounter between the haves and the have-nots has a powerful, fairytale quality. Time and place come alive in the dialogue between the pictures and the text, and the boy’s alienation and isolation in Borstal are finely rendered. The landscape is very much a character, as the police van taking him to school seems at sea in a wash of vibrant greens, under a vast sky. The pictures give the reader a sense of hope, and amplify the emotional journey the story describes.

The boy finds himself drawn to the stables, and comes to the attention of Mr. Alfie, the taciturn but compassionate head horseman, who introduces him to his beloved Suffolk Punch horses. The boy develops a particularly close relationship with Dombey, a horse who is troubled and difficult, very much like the boy himself. Together they take us on a unique journey, and the words and images take flight, as he trains the horse by racing it along the seas’ edge, galloping through the rainbow surf. But their relationship is not to last, as Dombey is sold, and when he is discharged early for good behaviour, he ends up homeless on the streets of London. Just when everything seems hopeless, an extraordinary twist of fate reunites him with Dombey and changes his life forever. At last, he has the chance to make himself proud, and justify the special people who believed in him.

The storyteller's voice is quiet and understated, allowing the reader to become involved in the feelings his experiences evoke. The pictures make the story come alive, enriching the reader’s experience to create a layered and involving account of one boy’s redemption through tough experiences, luck, and some amazing horses. The story feels both deeply grounded in time and place, and truly timeless. It includes a fascinating appendix about Hollesley Bay Borstal, the Suffolk Punch horses, and the boys and men who cared for them. Whether you love horses, war stories, triumphs over adversity, or stories with a vivid sense of time and place, in which history comes intimately alive, this timeless classic is for you.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

03 May 2010

Book of the Week (59): "Monsters of Men" by Patrick Ness

It’s here: the book I have impatiently waited for since devouring The Ask and the Answer last autumn has finally arrived through my door. Once I’d finished leaping round with excitement and managed to regain an ability to focus on text I began reading and was effortlessly transported back to New Prentisstown and Todd’s dilemma. The ROAR of impending war surrounds; the spackle are on the march, The Answer are closing in and Todd has captured the mayor whose release may be the only option to ensure Viola’s safety.

Patrick Ness once again delivers a magnificent novel; the pace keeps you turning pages well beyond bedtime, you can’t help getting attached to the characters and therefore leaving yourself open to feeling the love, pain, trauma and danger they encounter, and he explores difficult social and personal dilemmas of trust, manipulation, war and personal strength. It’s complex, insightful and accessible. Quite honestly I think the guy is a genius!

I had intended to write this review immediately after finishing the book but found I needed to recover from the experience first. Few novels have me holding my breath, switching from optimism to sudden tears at the turn of a page, few books make me pause reading just to process the author's brilliance as new twists emerge, few books do I race to finish while not wanting them to end, and even fewer leave me in a stunned silence when I read those last words and close the cover. This book - in fact all three of this trilogy - had that affect on me.

Even now, a week on, I’m struggling to find the right words to do the book justice. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. Perhaps, all I need say is wow! Read it, read it now!

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

Patrick Ness interview

To mark the publication of Monsters of Men, the third in Patrick Ness's magnificent Chaos Walking series, I've interviewed Patrick for a feature that ran in today's Independent on Sunday.

Monsters of Men hits the shops officially today (though apparently there have been sightings in the public domain over the weekend...) and it's very highly recommended. Tessa is writing it up as our new Book of the Week, too, so check back here for that later today.

30 April 2010

Book of the Week (58): "The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles, vol.1)" by Rick Riordan

This is a brilliant, funny and thrilling novel, full of strange magic and mind-blowing adventure. There is never a dull page - the only thing that stopped me reading it cover to cover was school!

Carter and Sadie Kane suddenly find that they have magical powers and their father has been locked in a sarcophagus. They embark on a dangerous quest to save their father and find that not only are the Egyptian Gods real but they are much closer than they ever could have imagined.

Comic in places, really absorbing, tense and exciting – this is even better than ‘Percy Jackson’!

Recommended by Andrew Lewis, Aged 12

  • For more supernatural adventure, try The Power of Five: Necropolis by Anthony Horowitz.
  • For more adventure on an epic scale, try Airman by Eoin Colfer or Corydon by Tobias Druitt.
  • If you want to know more about Egyptian myth, try hunting out any of the many versions available in your local bookshop or library.

20 April 2010

Book of the Week (57): "Rich and Mad" by William Nicholson

I was quite surprised when I received the review copy of Nicholson’s latest novel for teenagers. I was familiar with his fantasy writing, as well as his screenplays for blockbusters such as Gladiator and First Knight, so a realistic, tender novel about first love and sex was the last thing I expected. Well, some people are just multi-talented – Nicholson is a good writer even when he steps away from the big canvases of alternative worlds or historical epics to focus on the life of two, quite ordinary, teenagers. The novel shifts between the stories (and points of view) of Rich Ross and Maddy Fisher who go to the same school but have very little to do with each other until they find that they have something in common – they are both victims of unrequited love. Maddy is sure that she is having a secret love affair with the gorgeous, but still-to-dump-his-current-girlfriend, Joe Finnigan, while Rich is busy making a fool of himself to get the attention of the I-couldn’t-care-less-whether-you-live-or-die ice queen, Grace. When reality finally kicks in, Rich and Maddy find that they understand each other, have shared interests, and, actually, feel quite comfortable together.

The budding relationship between Rich and Mad is written convincingly and realistically, but the book mostly impressed me with its honesty about sex. From describing sexual feelings to pornography and finally ‘doing it’ – Nicholson is direct, doesn’t recoil from naming body parts, and more importantly, stays away from the ‘double standards’ which annoyingly persist in so many teen novels by showing us a girl who is interested in sex, enjoys and initiates it, as much, if not more than her male partner. Rich and Mad does not feel like sensational reading material as some aspects of Burgess’s ground-breaking Doing It did, and it is all the better for it. My only issue with it is that it still operates within the conservative / educational frame by promoting sex within a ‘proper’ relationship. (For this reason I still prefer Aidan Chambers’s Breaktime and the more recent Good Girls by Laura Ruby.)

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Well, obviously I highly recommend all three novels mentioned in this review. Melvin Burgess’s Doing It is still an important novel about sex for teenagers, even if it is far from perfect, Aidan Chambers’s Breaktime was published in 1978 and is still fresh, exciting and ground-breaking, and Laura Ruby’s Good Girls explores society’s double standards about the sex life of girls and boys.
  • I’d just like to throw in a trailer – Andersen Press are about to publish (July) a short story collection edited by Keith Gray and entitled Losing It, in which an impressive cast of current YA writers give their version of ‘the first time’. Should be interesting.

14 April 2010

Book of the Week (56): "Pretty Bad Things" by C.J. Skuse

Imagine a mash-up of Bonnie and Clyde, the TV series Supernatural and Hansel and Gretel and you’ll get a flavour of Pretty Bad Things. Add in a mullet-rock sound track, the sleaze and glitz of Las Vegas and a tonne of adolescent anger and there you are, deep in a story that sweeps you along at a reckless pace.

Paisley and Beau are twins - ones once famous for surviving three days alone in the woods after the death of their mother. They're 16 now, separated both in distance (by their super-bitch grandmother) and in temperament, as Beau is the geeky quiet boy and Paisley the hell-bent wild-child that no school can tame. Deliberately getting expelled from her last school, she finds Beau and the two of them go on the run, hunting for their long-lost father - last seen in Las Vegas.

I enjoyed the book, but probably not quite as much as some other reviewers. I didn't really believe in Paisley until about half way through the book, and I really never quite believed in her father. I'm not a fan of the current rage for pushing the boundaries of teen fiction with evermore explicitly violent and sexually aware stories - and this book is both. I kept wondering who it was aimed at... 12 year olds? 14 year olds? 16 year olds? When are teen books simply adult books with splashier covers?

I'd say this particular story of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll would be perfect for sophisticated teens - but definitely not for anyone wanting something comforting!

Recomended by Leonie Flynn

  • Kevin Brooks and Melvin Burgess for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll...
  • Jenny Valentine for realism with real people.

05 April 2010

Book of the Week (55): "Angelica Sprocket's Pockets" by Quentin Blake

It’s by Quentin Blake.

Surely that’s enough of a recommendation for anyone? No? You want more?

This is imagination in a pocket, well, lots of pockets. Angelica Sprocket has a pocket for everything you can think of and even things you wouldn’t believe. It left me wondering what she may have hidden up her sleeve…

Quentin Blake’s illustrations are, as always, full of character and characters. I love the recurring ducks that drink through straws and jump at horns and the alligator escaping the page. Energetic, colourful and playful, it’s a delight to read. It’s a wild adventure in an overcoat that may just leave you wondering if you could be making better use of your own pockets.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

  • A Quentin Blake favourite of mine is Clown - it has no words and really opened me up to the power of storytelling through pictures.

02 April 2010

David Almond wins 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award

Though this is rather late news (it happened more than a week ago), I did just want to mention how delighted I am that David Almond has won the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award. David is of course the author of many wonderful books, and while to my mind the best of them remain Kit's Wilderness and Skellig, I've never read one I didn't like. He's a favourite of all three UBG editors, and we're particularly proud to have him as the author of the introduction to our Ultimate Teen Book Guide.

Nikki Gamble, who runs the brilliant Write Away site, asked me last week for a few words on why I thought David was a great choice for the HCAA. So for what it's worth, this was my slightly rambly quote...

If you read a lot, you quickly learn that many books are rather like many other books. But this is not always true. David Almond writes books that are unlike anything by anyone else. You can always recognise a David Almond book, and not just the consistent setting, or the familiar way of telling a story, the characters, the prose, but because he seems to see the world quite differently from everyone else. It’s not a fantasy world he lives in, however, it’s not a different world to our own, he merely seems to see things in our own world that the rest of us don’t. And as a result, once you’ve read Kit’s Wilderness, or Skellig, or Clay, you’ll start seeing our world a little differently, too. And really, what more could a reader ask? Almond shows you the things that might be just half-glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, the spirits inside everyday things and places, the shadows lurking behind visible surfaces, the fault-lines between the physical world and the metaphysical, between past and present, life and death. No less than that. His are beautiful books, bold books, they’re books for brave readers who love writing. When we celebrate the pleasure of reading it’s because books allow you to immerse yourself in a world and see it through another’s eyes, and maybe understand something new; when we celebrate the greatness of truly great books it’s because it is these that will deeply change your own perceptions of your own world, and change it, and you, for good. I can think of no one writing for young people today who more deserves celebrating than David Almond.

Book of the Week (54): "Frightfully Friendly Ghosties" by Daren King, illustrated by David Roberts

It’s really a problem. Tabitha Tumbly and her ghosty friends are obliged to share their house with a family of still-alives (the bearded one, the one with high heels, and the two half-sized ones) who keep doing annoying things like locking the attic door when Pamela Fraidy is inside (and there’s a big leggy spider in there with her – and her a nervous wreck to begin with…). And the worst of it, blubs Wither, is that those still-alives keep being so mean to their ghosty housemates! So Tabitha, Pamela, Wither and their friends come up with a plan to befriend the still-alive family. Unfortunately the still-alives don’t seem very happy to have a troop of ghosties trying to get chummy with them. The ghosties are terribly friendly, frightfully modest, and exceptionally polite (especially Charlie, who always remembers to take off his hat), but those mean still-alives still run screaming every time they see them. How rude!

The family bring in a priest, carrying garlic and a cross ("What does the cross mean?" asked Humphrey. "I think," blubbed Wither, "it means he's cross..."), and the ghosties bring in a big scary Ghoul, and, well, then things really get out of hand...

This is a delightful, really very funny story for younger readers, written by the brilliant Daren King and illustrated with all his customary style by the even-brillianter David Roberts, with whom he’s collaborated before, including on the Nestlé-winning Mouse Noses on Toast. The story is well-told, witty and eccentric, and those fantastic pictures just bring out the best in it – a perfect match.

Owing to some shameful mistake by the publishers Roberts isn’t credited on the book, but if lots of us buy copies now they’ll have to reprint it soon and get it right next time. So if you needed another excuse…

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

24 March 2010

Book of the Week (53): "The Heart and the Bottle" by Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers illustrated and wrote one of my favourite picture books of recent years, Lost and Found, the story of an unlikely friendship between a boy and a penguin. (Other favourites include The Way Back Home and The Incredible Book Eating Boy.) His latest book, The Heart and the Bottle, is no less off-beat, and every bit as charming. It’s the story of a little girl who loves to learn all about the world – the stars, the sea – until one day, she comes over to her father’s chair to show him something she has drawn and finds the chair empty. Her father is no longer there. At that moment she stops feeling wonder at the world, stops marvelling at the beauty of things. Sadly she puts her heart away in a bottle, just to keep it safe…

Like Lost and Found this is at least in part a book about loneliness, and its story is supremely well told; and just like the earlier book it finds an ending which doesn’t feel forced or over-sentimental and yet is sweet, is just right. As usual Jeffers’ mixed-media pictures bear slow appreciation – they’re beautiful things (I’m going to have an Oliver Jeffers on my wall one day, just see if I don’t…), sometimes very richly detailed and sometimes expressive with such simplicity, with many lovely, witty discoveries to be made.

I have slight doubts, as I occasionally do with Oliver Jeffers’ books, whether they aren’t the sort of lovely picture books that adults adore more than children do – I’m yet to be persuaded that this is a book that young children will be charmed by. But I’m going to ignore that brief cavilling for now, because personally I love it. It’s about grief and love and the whole world – it’s touching, and profound.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn