28 February 2011

Book of the Week (91): "My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece" by Annabel Pitcher

Jamie Matthews is ten years old when his Dad relocates him and his teenage sister to the Lake District. A fresh start away from London. He has his cat Roger to keep him company, a brand new Spiderman T-shirt from his birthday, and has just made a new secret friend at school; a Muslim girl called Sunya, the superhero match to his Spiderman.

But beneath the surface the Matthews family is falling apart. His dad is an alcoholic and an emotional wreck, his mum stayed behind in London, and his sister Jas, wilting under a weight of comparison, has dyed her hair pink, gotten a piercing, and stopped eating.

Jamie’s other sister, Rose, lives on the mantelpiece in a golden urn. Jas’s identical twin who was killed in a terrorist attack five years ago. He can’t really remember her and doesn’t understand why the cottage is full of boxes marked ‘scared’. What he does know is that his dad must never find out about his new friend Sunya; and that his mum is going to come back to him soon.

When Jamie sees an advert for a talent show he’s convinced it’s the way to get his mum back and unite his family again.

Dealing with the extreme emotional stress that bereavement places on a family, Pitcher shows us an intimate, forthright, and ultimately heart-warming portrait of a family desperately trying to cope with an unthinkable loss. The character of Jamie Matthews is a genuine and captivating narrator that draws you deep into his complicated life. Not shying away from the serious emotions of grief, or the complications of racial pressure, she presents a brave and beautiful debut novel that is sure to draw a few tears, but leave you feeling hopeful.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is Annabel Pitcher’s first novel. Grown out of a travel notebook, it spans the heavyweight topics of terrorism, grief, and family in one bold masterful stroke; and I greatly look forward to seeing where she goes from here.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

21 February 2011

Book of the Week (90): "Lost in the Toy Museum" by David Lucas

I love David Lucas’s storytelling. Picture books such as Peanut and The Robot and the Bluebird convey emotional depth in a few simple words which are never beyond the grasp of young readers. His illustrations have a very distinctive style – they are both simple, reminiscent of naïve art, yet the way they are assembled on the page is very current, and the result is beautifully decorative. Lost in the Toy Museum is no exception, although it is more light-hearted than some of Lucas’s other work.

Set in Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood, which is one of my favourite museums in London, it is basically a hide-and-seek game which the toys play with their surrogate parent figure, Bunting the cat. Bunting in his hat, suit and suitcase obviously cares about the toys’ welfare and education, but like many parents and teachers, he can sometimes be a bit stuffy and serious. What he needs is to let go and have fun, and this is what the toys’ game is designed to teach him. As he searches for the rebellious crew, Bunting moves from setting to setting in the museum. The scenery and the toy characters featured in the book can be found in the museum itself, so the adventure has the potential to move beyond the page and become interactive as the child reader can join the game by visiting the galleries, following Bunting’s trail and searching for the actual toys. Lucas comments that he often visited the museum as a child, and I can’t think of a better way to thank this lovely institution for preserving memories of childhood gone by and inspiring new ones daily.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

20 February 2011

The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature

Well, a new project...

I've just signed a contract to compile a new Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Many of you will know the original volume, by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Pritchard, which OUP published back in 1984 and is long overdue an overhaul.

The original OCCL is a great book - very broad, very opinionated; it's a reference book, but far from being purely about conveying information it also takes a quite critical look at its subject; and with only two writers having put together the whole thing (Carpenter and Pritchard didn't assemble work by hundreds of contributors, they wrote the whole lot themselves) it's also got a distinctive voice.

My book will be taking the original volume as a starting-point, cutting parts of it away, updating some of it, and writing probably about eighty thousand new words. It's a big job. The daunting part, however, isn't the scale (I've done many reference books before), but the scope. Because it's not just about English children's books, but should have good coverage of other English-language work. Oh, and a bit about everything else, too. At least five hundred brand new entries - a teen novelist from Australia, a popular picture-book character from the US, an entry on folk tales from Greece, on Manga, on the Charlie and Lola TV animation, on children's publishing in Mexico, writing for young adults about sexuality, picture-book apps for the iPhone, Anthea Bell and Lemony Snicket, along with armoured bears and daemons and Dust. Books from Austria and Israel and Turkey and India.

The initial fun part, of course, is drawing up the list of what/who goes in. But first I have an awful lot to learn...

(Sounds fun, tho', doesn't it?)


14 February 2011

Book of the Week (89): "Ice Maiden" by Sally Prue

It’s 1939, shortly after Kristallnacht , the Night of Broken Glass, with its wave of Nazi attacks on Germany's Jews. Franz and his parents have left Berlin behind and are in England on an extended holiday. Franz has distanced himself from his parents, disgusted by their Nazi loyalty, their abilty to turn their backs on those in need and frustrated by their refusal to provide answers. As an outsider in the local village, a boy with the wrong accent and wrong coat, Franz spends all his time alone on the nearby common, watching the wildlife, considering the ferocity and beauty of nature.

Then one day Franz is surprised to find himself being attacked by something, something icy cold, something he can’t see…

Eldrin is of the tribe, beautiful, vicious and hungry, hungrier than she’s ever been before. As her hunger grows her fascination with the daemon boy grows too. She watches him, sees him stare in her direction, careful to avoid looking into his eyes for fear of being captured by daemon slave vines. Yet realising there is something different about this daemon - he doesn’t seem to be enslaved. Spending increasing time near him, following him, she starts to change. Her Tribe grow suspicious, turning against her, forcing her to run or fight. Franz and Eldrin are two outsiders, drawn together through fascination and survival.

An interesting interplay of the distressing reality of Nazi doctrine and the supernatural realm of Faeries, exploring notions of being an outsider, the dangers of being perceived as different, of trust, misunderstanding and of survival.
Ice Maiden can be read alone but it is the prequel to Sally Prue's award-winning Cold Tom, a re-imagining of the folk legend of Tam Lin, the human man tempted by an elvish queen.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

07 February 2011

Book of the Week (88): "Tyranny - I Keep You Thin" by Lesley Fairfield

The Canadian author Lesley Fairfield has battled with eating disorders for nearly thirty years. To share with others the tools she has gained in the process, and to describe the mindset and danger signs of those suffering from eating disorders, she has created this powerful graphic novel.

We follow Anna from the early resistance to her body changing at puberty, through her everyday struggles to hold on to her boyfriend, get through high school in one piece, to her first job working as a waitress in the Sad Café. It is on her way home that Tyranny, her other, darker self, strikes and claims her. Tyranny literally consumes her. Drawn in large, loping, snakelike lines, this representation of Anna’s inner self allows us instantly to identify what she is thinking and feeling. Anna’s struggles against Tyranny are nerve-wracking, moving and inspiring. The gap between how she sees herself and how others see her widens painfully, as Tyranny “swallows her whole”. Food becomes all Anna thinks about, until she loses everything that matters to her, and faces the ultimate choice between life and death. Watching her health decline on the page, the danger signs are clear.

Sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that identity is a narrative created in response to loss. The way that Tyranny’s form keeps changing suggests what might occur if we leave the narrative to write itself. Anna seeks help, and acquires the tools that may help her confront Tyranny once and for all. Can she do it? Can she redraw her own script, and write Tyranny out of her system? You will be rooting for her all the way. The visual diary appearance of the book creates a powerful sense of realism. Fairfield suggests that creativity and inner strength, the aspects of ourselves we most identify with, can become Tyranny’s tools, engaged to find more and more elaborate and creative means not to eat, and to try to hide this from those who care for us. The power to imagine things differently, to find a gap outside of Tyranny’s hold, is enacted by the book itself, which both movingly presents Anna’s dilemma and allows the reader a critical distance, as Fairfield emphasises the need to love ourselves as we are, even as she presents the many obstacles and challenges to doing so.

For anyone who worries about their weight, or knows someone who just wants to be thin. For all of us who want to understand how hard it can be to escape tyranny’s clutches.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

01 February 2011

Book of the Week (87): "Tyme's End" by B.R. Collins

Bibi is drawn to Tyme’s End, the deserted old mansion close to where she lives with her adoptive family; and the truth is, Tyme’s End is the only place she really feels at home – the old house holds an attraction for her that’s undeniably potent, but also hard to explain. Even Bibi knows there’s something odd about the place, but what? When the long-lost owner, Oliver, shows up one day out of the blue, it seems as though the reasons for the house’s strange power might be made clear. But no, not yet, it’s not quite that simple…

If you’ve read either of the previous books by B.R. Collins, you won’t be surprised to learn that she’s trying something pretty ambitious in Tyme’s End. It’s a story in three parts, set in 1936, 1996 and 2006, where events of one time have chilling consequences in the later periods, but they’re told to us in reverse order. We’re in 2006, and something is amiss but it’s not quite clear what… and we have to go back to 1996 to understand it… or at least part of it, because really to get the full picture of why 1996 is as it is we have to go still further back to 1936, to a story in which Oliver’s grandfather is the protagonist and all is revealed. The chronology has to go backwards, the momentum still has to feel like it’s going forwards. Not an easy one to pull off.

The opening of Tyme’s End is good, and it gets better, gaining in menace as it retreats in time – the past is a foreign country, yes, and it’s certainly full of surprises, but it’s also perpetually here with us today, in ways we might not expect and that we certainly won’t like. And so the reader is drawn back into that other time, an irresistible gravitational pull towards back a single extraordinary character who is evil, and irresistible…

(But no more for fear of spoilers.)

Smart, chilling stuff.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn