Tag Archives: brilliant children’s books

Branford Boase, and the Magic of Books for Young Readers

Today (Tube strikes and other Acts of God bedamned!) the results of the 2015 Branford Boase Award will be announced. The Branford Boase is an amazing thing: an award presented to the best debut novel written for children/YA published in a particular year, which also recognises the vital role the editor/s have in bringing stories to their fullest life, and which always attracts a stellar long- and shortlist.

This year – even though I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist! – I have no idea how the judges are going to choose. It’s a job I’d simultaneously love and loathe – love, because you’d get to read so many incredible books, but loathe because I’d love all of them equally and choosing would be impossible. (But I’d give it a shot, just in case anyone’s listening).

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

As this article (from which the image is drawn) makes clear, the shortlist this year is extremely strong indeed. Every single book on the list deserves, in one way or another, to be rewarded, and certainly they all deserve to be read. Lest anyone think for a minute that books aimed at readers who are teens, or younger, aren’t worth bothering with, shall we consider the sort of subject matter these books deal with?

Yes. Yes, I think we shall.

To kick off, we have a book (Bone Jack, written by Sara Crowe, edited by Charlie Sheppard and Eloise Wilson) which deals with PTSD and alienation, loneliness and confusion, ancient pagan ritual and blood-soaked legend, where forces older than humanity are seen to still have sway over modern life and the power of the land is still strong. So Alan Garner-esque. So spine-chillingly amazing.

We also have a book (Trouble, written by Non Pratt and edited by Annalie Granger and Denise Johnstone-Burt) which deals with teenage pregnancy, the bonds of friendship, and the difficulties of growing up a little bit more quickly than you’d intended, as well as family complication, bodily autonomy and the travails of having to go through the most challenging thing you’ve ever experienced while still having to deal with school, and all its stresses

Then there’s a book (Half Bad, written by Sally Green and edited by Ben Horslen) which is an excellent, pacy, gripping read about a boy who is half White Witch and half Black Witch, in a world like our own but in which magic is an accepted part of everyday life. Hated and mistrusted because of who his father was, can he overcome his genetics and magical inheritance – and does he want to?

As if that wasn’t enough, we have a book (Cowgirl, written by Giancarlo Gemin and edited by Kirsty Stansfield) which takes a look at life on an underprivileged housing estate in Wales, and one girl’s attempt to break free of the misery she sees all around her through connecting with an ‘ideal’. These attempts bring her into the sphere of the legendary Cowgirl, and embroils her in the fate of a doomed herd of cattle – if she can save them, can she save herself?

There’s also the deeply moving Year of the Rat, written by Claire Furniss and edited by Jane Griffiths, in which a young girl named Pearl must deal with feelings she can hardly process in the aftermath of her mother’s death in childbirth. Her baby sister (whom she refers to as the Rat) comes into the world as their mother leaves it, and Pearl lashes out, keeps secrets, has ‘visions’ of her deceased mother, and eventually breaks down. Here is a book about love and grief which doesn’t hide from the darkness.

I’m not so familiar with the final two shortlstees, but they sound incredible too:

Leopold Blue by Rosie Rowell, edited by Emily Thomas, is set in South Africa during apartheid, and tells the story of a friendship which crosses the divide. Taking in the social issues of the day, including the scourge of HIV/AIDS, this is a realistic and significant book dealing with turbulent recent history.

The Dark Inside by Rupert Wallis, edited again by Jane Griffiths, is a story about two wounded people finding their way forward together, both dealing with the after-effects of abuse and trauma, and of the dark ‘curse’ which haunts their steps. Sounding a lot like a work of magical realism, this is one I need to read at my first available opportunity – but then I say that to all the books.

If these sketchy synopses aren’t enough to demonstrate that the world of children’s and YA books is about so much more than angsty love triangles and sulky heroines with floppy hair, then I’ll eat my hat. The breadth of imagination here, the wealth of story, the accomplishment in this shortlist alone is enough to make me want to do a joyful jig (but don’t worry, I won’t) that the world of writing for young readers is so vibrant, diverse, imaginative and simply brilliant. It’s where it’s at, people. Get on board.

And stay tuned to the Branford Boase Twitter account later today to find out who wins…

Here we go again…

I start this morning with a heartfelt sigh. It’s not because the day outside is so dark it looks as if the sun has been switched off, or there is a high and wuthering wind tickling the eaves of my house, or because I’ve only barely got enough decaf left for one more cup, but because a friend shared this article with me.

If you’re not the ‘clicking on links’ type (and to be honest, I can hardly blame you), this is the title of the offending piece: ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature.’

Well, now. Let’s just think about that one for a minute.

Image: unrealitymag.com

Image: unrealitymag.com

My first issue with the piece is this: I have no time for articles about children’s literature and/or YA literature which rely on the work of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer as their sole examples of the genre. This article mentions both these authors in its first paragraph, and doesn’t trouble itself to examine any other works of children’s fiction. Newsflash: there are far more books in the children’s lit. firmament than Harry Potter and Twilight. Honestly! To begin with, while I loathe the Twilight books with a passion, Meyer has also written a wonderful SF-themed, philosophical book titled ‘The Host’ which, despite being made into a movie, doesn’t seem to get enough credit – and which certainly isn’t mentioned in the article. ‘The Host’ deals with the idea of what makes a human being ‘human’, what it means to have a soul, how far one is willing to go for the people one loves, self-sacrifice, courage, and commitment. It is a book for teenagers which needs a large canvas; it examines everything an adult novel does, and more.

The author of the article does, to his credit, admit that some children’s books are better written, and more creatively structured, than adult books – this is undeniably true, though that’s not to say adult books are all bland, vanilla copies of one another. There are adult books which are intense flights of fantasy, or which are structured (‘Cloud Atlas’, anyone?) in wonderfully arresting ways. There are also a lot of bad, boring, irritatingly simplistic children’s books – I am not trying to deny that. However, when a children’s book is excellent, it really shines. I think the transformative power of a children’s book, the potential a good children’s book has to change a whole life, affect the reader’s entire way of thinking, is much stronger than an adult book. This numinous power is even felt by adult readers – I know I often find myself far more deeply moved by the emotional range and weight of children’s books than those written for adults. The issues in children’s books – loneliness, abandonment, powerlessness, love, bone-shattering hate, fear, adventure, injustice, bewilderment, identity, forging one’s place in the world – can be raw, and vital, and wounding, and just as relevant to an adult reader as to a child. Despite this, the author seems to take greatest issue with the ‘fact’ that children’s books just don’t tackle the same issues that adult books do, such as the grey areas of life, or the moral challenges of modernity, or the huge existential questions posed by writers like Joyce and Kafka.

In answer to that, I say: clearly, sir, you have not read very many children’s books.

Image: cafepress.com

Image: cafepress.com

For life’s grey areas, I direct you to the work of the current UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, or the moral ambiguity at the heart of Cal, the central character in Catherine Fisher’s magnificent ‘Corbenic’, or the ideas around fatherhood in Gillian Cross’ novel ‘Wolf.’ Can you be a good person while doing bad things? These books will tell you that. So many children’s books deal with existential questions like ‘why am I here?’ ‘why was I born?’ ‘what happens when we die?’ – a few that spring to mind are Terry Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ series, in which Tiffany’s deceased grandmother is as important a character as any of the living people in her world, and the timeless ‘The Little Prince,’ a book which teaches me something new every time I read it. Sally Nicholls’ amazing ‘All Fall Down,’ a book set during the time of the Black Death in England, is an unflinching look at mortality and loss and a powerful story about how it is possible to pick oneself up and carry on after suffering more than anyone should have to. It is aimed at young teenagers, but speaks to all ages. A recent children’s book which made no effort to shy away from the brutality of life was Sally Gardner’s ‘Maggot Moon’, a book which examines the horror of fascism and oppression and pulls no punches about doing it. If you want a story about political intrigue, ways to rule a kingdom, justice and injustice, how to distinguish between good and evil, and the terrible necessity – sometimes – to mask your true self in order to live in peace, then look no further than Kristin Cashore’s trilogy of ‘Graceling,’ ‘Fire’ and ‘Bitterblue,’ all aimed at the 12+ market.

One of the lines from the article which really irritated me was this: ‘Life is messy, life is surprising and, most of all, life is full of compromises.’ The article’s author means that only adult books are large enough to encompass themes like this, and that children’s books are reductive, black and white, and too simplistic to engage with wider themes like the chaotic nature of reality. But that’s exactly what children’s books are best at – dealing with a world which is frightening, unknowable, utterly surprising, sometimes a total and inexplicable mess, and where a child’s will often has to take second place to that of an adult. Mess, surprise and compromise are three of the central props of children’s literature. What could be more chaotic, or surprising, or fraught with compromise, than having your home life devastated, or war destroy your country, or being thrust into a new family with little or no warning, or having a parent fall ill, or being made homeless, or stateless, or being forced to face up to a changed reality: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’? ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? ‘Code Name Verity’? ‘The Silver Sword’? ‘I Am David’? ‘Elidor’? The ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy? ‘A Monster Calls’? ‘Bog Child’? There are so many books about themes like this.

I could go on, but I’ve gone on long enough. Let me just finish by saying that I am the first to admit there are a lot of silly, overwritten, copycat books aimed at children and young adult readers – they are not all masterpieces of modern literature. As well as that, of course there are things children’s books (as distinct from YA books) won’t deal with, such as sexual relationships, or marriage, or anything in that realm, and that’s perfectly appropriate. However, if you’re willing to look for them, you’ll find children’s books – good ones – are just as profound, life-changing, meaningful, brave and beautiful as the best of literature written for adults; they pitch their ideas just as widely, and they deal with as full a range of human emotions, fears and needs.

And I won’t let anyone say otherwise.

Image: m.inmagine.com

Image: m.inmagine.com

 

Book Review Saturday: ‘The Spindlers’

I hope it’s a bright and beautiful Saturday where you are; if not, then maybe this review will bring a bit of sunshine into your life.

Today, I’ll be talking about Lauren Oliver’s beautiful book ‘The Spindlers’.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Ms. Oliver is a noted author of both children’s and YA novels, though I have yet to read any of her books for older readers. I’ve been wanting to pick up some of her work for a while now, and when I saw the beautiful cover art on ‘The Spindlers’, I knew it was coming home with me. Plus, the story is about a young girl who braves the terrors of the underworld to rescue her little brother’s soul – what more could any book promise?

Lauren Oliver’s book not only promises much, but it delivers too. I really enjoyed ‘The Spindlers’, and if you sit tight and behave, I’ll tell you why.

Ready? Okay.

So. ‘The Spindlers’ introduces us to Liza Elston and her younger brother Patrick, who live with their parents in a normal house on a normal street in a normal town. Their parents are loving and kind, but also stressed and overworked and tired and have little time to play or have fun anymore. The kids’ beloved babysitter Anna has just gone off to college, and they both miss her terribly; they talk about her to one another and they remember her as being fun, a teller of great stories and an inventor of brilliant games – but, most importantly, she has always given them excellent advice about the nastier things in life, things that lurk in the dark and which want to steal away children’s souls. Following her directions to the letter, the children stay safe for a very long time, but then one day Patrick forgets to take precautions, and he’s claimed by the fearsome Spindlers… and so our tale begins.

Despite the fact that she doesn’t actually appear in the book, Anna is one of its most important characters. Her wisdom and love for Liza and Patrick shine through the whole thing, and at times of crisis Liza remembers the lessons taught to her not only by her parents but also by Anna, and it’s actually Anna, who (somehow) has an intimate knowledge of the workings of the world Below who gives Liza the most help on her quest. It’s not even important that we don’t find out how, and why, Anna is so knowledgeable about the other world; she’s like a good witch, or a fairy godmother. She gives love and advice and guidance, expecting nothing in return, and even in her absence she is a force for good. Liza, too, is a wonderful character – strong and brave and intelligent, she knows straight away that her brother’s soul has been taken by the terrible Spindlers, creatures who are half-spider and half-human, and who are so awful that they’re feared even by the other creatures who live in the underworld. She is not fooled by the fact that a changeling is left in Patrick’s place, a being which moves and looks and sounds like her brother – she knows it’s not him, and she knows what she has to do to save him.

Having found the entrance to the underworld, she meets a huge variety of strange and wonderful creatures, including a rat who wears a wig (as well as rouge and lipstick) who acts as her unofficial guide; troglods, little brown, scuttling creatures who buy and sell all those objects humans ‘lose’ in the world Above and which somehow find their way Below; scawgs, shapechanging horrors who try to lure you in by tempting you with gorgeous food that makes you hungrier the more you eat of it, and the beautifully described nocturni, or dream-bringers, of which every soul has one, paired together for all eternity. The journey itself is reminiscent of a lot of quest narratives – a guide is found, trust is built up between them (but is it misplaced?), tests are encountered, terror is faced up to, threats which are mentioned in passing end up becoming horrifying reality, and the rules of the otherworld are broken by the intruding human to interesting narrative effect. The gradual building up of the relationship between Liza and Mirabella (her rouge-wearing rat guide) is wonderfully done – the initial disgust and mistrust between them slowly warming into friendship before hitting a seemingly insurmountable barrier – and the complicated feelings Liza has for her little brother are realistically, and touchingly, described. The feats of imagination on the part of the author are wonderful, particularly with regard to the nocturni, which are truly beautiful creations.

Liza must face a test near the end of the book, a test which has three parts. The last part sees her tempted by a ‘perfect’ family, one who promises to love and treasure her, to pay her attention and play with her. They tell her they’re better than her family Above, who are too busy and too stressed and preoccupied by bills and jobs and problems to take proper care of her. In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s masterful ‘Coraline’, in which the Other Mother tempts Coraline to stay with her for much the same reason; of course, our heroines in both cases see through this temptation, and realise how much they love their own families in the process. Another theme I relished in this book is one of justice vs injustice, a topic which was close to my heart as a youngster – Liza is unfairly judged by the Court of Stones on her way through the underworld, and then near the end of the book the Spindler Queen does not keep her part of a bargain – and the sense of rage and unfairness is deftly handled. Not only does it serve to underline the evil of Liza’s enemies, but it also drives the reader to empathise even more with her desperate plight.

Some of the ideas in this book will be familiar and dearly-loved territory to readers, like me, who love mythology and are interested in story structure and motifs; even if you’re not a nerd like me, though, the book is beautiful. What makes it so especially lovely is Ms. Oliver’s use of language; her imagery sparkles at times and she doesn’t dumb down her vocabulary or descriptive touches. I really like that in a children’s author – a person who’s not afraid to stretch young readers with long and delicious words is, to my mind, a good children’s author.

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Spindlers’ – there’s enough terror and peril there to keep even the most bloodthirsty reader happy, and there’s enough wonder and beauty there to charm the rest. As well as that, the over-arching themes – loyalty, love, bravery, facing up to challenges, digging deep within yourself for strength you didn’t even know was there – are delightful. I’d recommend this book if you know any 8/9+ readers in search of a gripping story, and I challenge you not to dip in and have a read yourself…

Happy Saturday! Enjoy, relax, put your feet up and read.

Image: learn.esu10.org

Image: learn.esu10.org

Continuing Tradition – Review of ‘A Face Like Glass’ by Frances Hardinge

Regular readers, you’ll know what to expect…

Image: franceshardinge.com

Image: franceshardinge.com

Yup. It’s a book review. This week, it’s the turn of ‘A Face Like Glass’, by Frances Hardinge.

I have to admit, right at the start, that I’m a huge Frances Hardinge fan. She’s an amazing writer, who knows how to use words and who’s not afraid to make them work hard, a writer who doesn’t shy away from language just because she chooses to write for younger readers. Coming to her work was, for me, a revelation. It showed me just how good and how exciting children’s books could be.

‘A Face Like Glass’ is an excellent book, in keeping with its shelfmates ‘Fly By Night’, ‘Twilight Robbery’ and ‘Gullstruck Island’ (I have yet to acquire ‘Verdigris Deep’, but I will do, just as soon as funds allow!) It’s a book filled with such leaps of imagination that reading it can leave you feeling breathless and incredulous, wondering how on earth one brain could possibly hold so much wonder. It tells the story of a vast (and notoriously unmappable) underground city named Caverna, which houses a collection of eclectic and unusual inhabitants. As well as Cheesemaster Grandible, with whom our heroine Neverfell makes her home after she mysteriously turns up in one of his vats, we meet the powerful Childersin family, who are hiding an immense secret, and Madame Appeline, the famous Facesmith.

A Facesmith? What on earth is that? Well… it’s hard to explain.

Caverna needs Facesmiths because it is a world in which people are born without the ability to form facial expressions. This doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings – they are just rendered unable to show them to others. Everyone in this world is taught, from a young age, the basic expressions, but of course there are those for whom this limited repertoire is insufficient. Facesmiths, then, design expressions, and bring out ‘ranges’, like fashion collections, of trademarked (and viciously guarded) Faces. They employ Putty Girls, young women with particularly pliable facial muscles, in order to display their wares to potential clients. People ‘of quality’, with plenty of money, can afford to buy several hundred Faces, whereas those of lower classes are taught the bare minimum of expressions as children – ones which will serve their station in life, expressing their acquiescence and their eagerness to obey orders.

If all this sounds rather strange, then think of this: how can you tell if a person is lying or telling the truth, if their face is a static mask which betrays no emotion? How can you gauge how another is feeling, if their expression doesn’t give it away? How – as Hardinge explores at the end of the book – can people feel part of a shared community if everyone wears the same neutral expression, if nobody can look at their neighbour with sympathy, understanding, love, or even compassion? If your feelings are constantly locked up inside you, with no way to be expressed? She takes the idea of Faces and makes it so important, so vital to understanding what it means to be a human being, that I was left staggered by her worldbuilding.

Caverna is underground, and the people who live there have a profound fear of Outside. They live in terror of the sun, which burns off people’s skin and leaves them blind (so they have been told), but Neverfell – the deliciously, lovably eccentric protagonist of this tale – has memories, or flashes, of things she can’t explain, things like the wind, and the feeling of being beneath nothing but the sky, and birdsong. Nobody can explain how she ended up falling into Cheesemaster Grandible’s life, but he takes her in and makes her his apprentice, and pretty soon she’s as accomplished a cheesemaker as anyone could be. She has to turn her back on this quiet, but safe, life, however, when she gets herself mixed up with Madame Appeline. This intriguing figure has made her name as a Facesmith with her Tragedy Range, a collection of Faces so heartrending that every lady of quality has to own it; Neverfell feels an inexplicable connection to this grand lady which she must uncover. In the process of trying to do this, she manages to inveigle herself in the affairs of the Childersin family, who are favourites at the court of the Grand Steward, the notoriously unstable leader of this underground world.

The most amazing thing about Neverfell, though, is this: she has a face which isn’t constrained by Caverna’s strange lack of expression. She has, as the title says, a face like glass – a face so clear and honest that you can look straight through it to her heart, and her emotions are displayed for all to see. Grandible has kept her masked all her life, until she’s about thirteen or so, and because of this Neverfell believes herself to be grotesquely ugly. The real reason, of course, is that Grandible can’t bear to look upon her because her face is natural and free, and not constrained by any of the official Faces. Neverfell cannot lie, and that’s something the people of Caverna can’t understand – and it makes her both dangerous and desirable. At court, she is completely natural, too, which means she blunders her way through proceedings, offending all around her, and creating ructions in the delicate structures of etiquette and protocol, to which she’s oblivious. She puts the Childersins in danger, and has to escape in order to save her own life.

But, in an underground city, how far can you run?

This book is, like all of Hardinge’s novels, big and meaty and wordy and complicated, and so full of imagery and description and language that I wish I could have read it as a teenager. It would have given me an even deeper love for words than that which I already have. It tackles a complicated Court structure – imagine pre-Revolutionary France, but even more unhinged – as well as social class, the oppression of the poor, the absurd privilege and entitlement accorded to those who can afford it, notions of humanity and identity and freedom, questions about mental health and delusion, how treating people like objects leads to terror. It introduces us to the most endearing and unique heroine I’ve ever come across in children’s fiction, a young girl who has courage, intelligence and self-belief, and who – once she discovers what is wrong with the heart of her world – has the conviction to do something about it. It’s deftly plotted, expertly written, and handled so well that the reader never feels lost, or confused, or has to wonder what’s going on. This is a story which sucks you in and spits you out when it’s done with you; you’ll be a changed person, but you’ll be glad of it.

In short, it’s marvellous.

It’s a children’s book, but at nearly 500 pages, it’s a story for everyone masquerading as a children’s book. I hope you try it. I challenge you not to be astounded.

Happy weekend – may you read widely and well!