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...