Tag Archives: children’s literature

Cover Reveal for THE EYE OF THE NORTH (UK edition)!

This morning, my wi-fi stopped working just before 8 am. That was unfortunate, because a very wonderful book blogger named Jo Clarke was preparing to unveil the UK cover for my book, THE EYE OF THE NORTH, right at that time.

It was one of those moments where you just have to shake your head and laugh at the absurdity of the universe.

In any case, shortly after 8 my internet came back and I was able to do what I’m urging you to do now, which is visit this lovely post on Jo’s blog and read what she had to say about my book, and her very kind words about the beautiful cover image. I’m extremely grateful to Jo, and to my publishers (Stripes Publishing), for giving me the joyful experience of a good old-fashioned cover reveal – it was so much fun, and I’m so thankful to all those who took the time to share, comment on and show their appreciation for the beautiful art which has been created for the UK publication of THE EYE OF THE NORTH.

And, because I can’t resist, I’m going to share the stupendous cover image myself. It was designed by Sophie Bransby at Stripes and drawn by Sara Mulvanny, and here it is:

EOTN_UK_FrontCover

THE EYE OF THE NORTH front cover, UK edition (Stripes Publishing, 2018), artist Sara Mulvanny, designer Sophie Bransby

So. Now you know what to look for when shopping for excellent books on or after February 8th, 2018. What do you think of the cover art? Let me know!

#Bookelves16 (Or, the Best Book Recommendations Around)

Christmas, you may have noticed, has been and gone. The turkey has been gobbled (sorry, sorry), the decorations put away for another year (well, in some houses…), and the wrapping paper has well and truly been recycled.

So, why am I blogging, you may ask, about #Bookelves16? Well, because books are for life, not just for Christmas. And it’s always a good time of year for great book recommendations, am I right?

Of course I am.

In case I’m talking utter nonsense to some of you – those who don’t follow me on Twitter, f’rinstance (and if this is you *makes stern face* rectify that situation as soon as possible, please) – I’d best explain what #Bookelves16 is all about. So, during the month of December, a bunch of great people who love children’s books, led by head elf Sarah Webb, took to social media to promote, recommend and prescribe children’s books to those who were looking for gifts, or just for something wondrous to read. All through the month people who know their onions when it comes to kidlit took the time to give personal recommendations to those who needed them, and/or just to talk about their own favourites. I’m proud to say that I was a Bookelf, and that it was huge fun.

Today’s blog, then, will be a quick recap of some of my favourite #Bookelves16 recommendations, and if you want to check out all the recommendations on offer, simply head to Twitter and stick ‘#bookelves16’ into the Search box, and Bob’s your mother’s brother. Simple!

My first recommendation was for Jennifer Bell’s THE UNCOMMONERS: THE CROOKED SIXPENCE.

uncommoners

Cover image for Jennifer Bell’s THE UNCOMMONERS, art by Karl J Mountford (Corgi Children’s Books, 2016)

I reviewed this book last year, and I don’t think I’ve read a book I’ve loved quite so much in… well, in forever. It’s wonderful, and one I will treasure and reread with great joy for years to come. Happily, a sequel, THE SMOKING HOURGLASS, is imminent – I’ll be top of the queue to buy it.

I also recommended, to great interest, a sequence of books by Kevin Crossley-Holland, which reimagine the world of King Arthur through the eyes of a young boy who shares his name and possesses a ‘seeing stone’ which allows him to look into the world of the legendary king. Anyone who needs proof that children’s books can be powerful, meditative, intoxicatingly well-written and an amazing story on top of that need look no further.

crossley-holland

Spines for Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy (plus the fourth book, ‘Gatty’s Tale’), Orion Children’s books

My recommendations also included the work of Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Norton Juster (whose THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is one of my all-time favourites; I can’t wait to read it to my own child in a few years’ time), Madeleine l’Engle, Terry Pratchett, Allan Boroughs (IRONHEART is a particular favourite round these parts), Peter Bunzl, James E. Nicol, Christopher Edge, Lucy Strange’s THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, everything by the unstoppable, wonderful Abi Elphinstone and everything by the lyrically perfect Frances Hardinge, the monumental KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK by the magical Dave Rudden, along with books by Kieran Fanning, Nigel Quinlan, Eva Ibbotson, Horatio Clare, S.F. Said and Andrea Beaty (whose ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST and ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER are major hits in my house). The interested reader might also like to check out this article from a recent edition of The Irish Times, in which yours truly recommended some great reads along with a host of other kidlit-types – there are enough book ideas in that article alone to satisfy anyone’s cravings.

But because a bookelf never really hangs up her pointy hat, no matter whether it’s Christmas or any other time of year, I’d like to say this: I’m on hand, 24/7/365 (or as near to it as I can manage) to recommend, give guidance on, and enthuse wildly about – I’ll warn you now, there will be flappy hands – children’s books, from picture books to upper MG, and I may even set my tremulous toe into the waters of YA. I’m not much of an expert on books for teens, but I do have a fair knowledge, and if I don’t know the answer to your question I will know someone who does.

So, I’ll leave you with this: read often, read well, expose the children in your life to as many books as they can carry (don’t forget the library!) and never deny them reading material if it’s at all possible to provide it. If they enjoy reading, rejoice, for you never know the worlds which will open up before them and the thirst for learning they will develop. And, importantly, let your children read whatever they want to read.  Anything else will induce stress palpitations, frankly, and nobody needs those.

And on that note, I’ll leave you in peace. I’m sure you have reading to be getting on with…

 

 

Hay Festival Kells

Hay Festival Kells 2014 finished yesterday, after four (no doubt) glorious days; the weather was showery-but-generally-pretty-okay, the speakers and events were top-notch, and the town buzzed with book fever. So, naturally, The Husband and I made a beeline for it. Last year we spent three days at Hay Kells, almost bankrupting ourselves and overloading our car with book purchases, so this year we decided ‘all things in moderation.’ One day sufficed, we convinced ourselves.

It didn’t, really. But we made the best of it.

Part of Kells' pretty main street. Image: meathchronicle.ie

Part of Kells’ pretty main street.
Image: meathchronicle.ie

Kells is a lovely town, oozing history out of every stick and stone. One end has an ancient graveyard, the other a medieval church and round tower; Celtic crosses (in various states of disrepair, thanks in large part to Oliver Cromwell and his marauding forces) can be found in various locations. Outside of the town is a large folly named the Tower of Lloyd, built during a time of terrible hardship. From the viewing platform at its top, a huge swathe of the surrounding countryside can be seen, including a Famine graveyard. So, clearly, you’re never short of a way to spend your time, particularly if, like us, you’re interested in history and culture.

However, this year, we were there for the books, and just the books.

It’s wonderful to see the whole town come together in support of the Hay festival; second-hand bookshops pop up everywhere, and every shop decorates its windows with books to get into the Hay spirit. There’s live music, cookery demonstrations, talks by some of the world’s leading literary figures, a massive focus on children’s events and children’s books, and even a celebration of typography, rejoicing in letters and words in their raw form. This year, we only attended one talk, given by Professor Declan Kiberd on the history of Irish children’s literature (though, of course, it was far more wide-ranging than that, taking into account history and philosophy and anthropology and the reasons why adults write children’s literature and what sort of agendas they bring to it), and it was fascinating. We heard a brass band recital, and we visited the food market (barely restraining ourselves from eating everything in sight), and – of course – we visited many, many book purveyors.

Our purchases!

Our purchases! (Guess which are mine, and which are hubby’s…)

I love conversing with people who love books, and nobody’s better at that than a person who sells them for a living. We chatted to loads of interesting (and slightly batty, but all in a good sense) folk who live amongst and for their books, taking advice and recommendations, discussing literature and culture as a whole, and discovering how much fun it is to take time out and just talk to people. There’s something about a festival spirit that brings out the raconteur in everyone, and that, in itself, is to be celebrated – and if there are books involved, all to the better.

If you have a chance to get to Kells next year – when, I sincerely hope, the Hay Festival will be returning – I couldn’t recommend it more highly. And, of course, look me up; you’ll probably find me snout-first in a big old box of children’s books…

 

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Twistrose Key’

Aha, the lure of a gorgeous cover. It snared me again with ‘The Twistrose Key.’ But before you judge me, just look at it. Wouldn’t it have snared you, too?

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

‘The Twistrose Key’ is the début novel of Tone Almhjell, a Norwegian writer, and the love of the North is inscribed all over this book. It is set partly in a wintry magical Otherworld known as Sylver, where the snow and ice is not seen (hurrah!) as a symptom of evil magic, but merely is, and the creatures who live there exist quite happily within it. The central concept of the story is lovely – Sylver is a place where creatures who were, in life, loved by a human child go when they die – and there are some moments of gorgeous writing and wonderful scene-setting. There are some memorable characters, and lots of juicy mythological/fairytale references for nerds like me to pick up on, but… But.

Is it possible for a book to try to do too much? If so, then I think ‘The Twistrose Key’ falls into that trap, just a little.

Our central (human) character is Lin Rosenquist, who has just moved into a new rented home with her parents after her mother is asked to come and work in a large, prestigious university. Thrillingly, her mother is employed as a sort of musicologist – or, at least, she examines folk and traditional music for its larger, wider meaning, which is important as the story unfolds – and I found that interesting, and different, and just up my alley. The book’s opening sentence is: ‘The grave that Lin had made for her friend could not be touched by wind’, and once we’ve been thoroughly sucked into the story by this gripping image (what grave? What friend? How can a child make a grave?) we gradually work out that ‘the friend’ is her late, lamented pet Rufus, who was (or is?) a vole of remarkable fortitude.

She returns to the house in order to eat with her parents, who give her some bad news – softened somewhat by offering her her favourite dessert of rice pudding (another thing we had in common, Lin and I) – and notices someone giving her a message through the window. When she rushes to the front door to find out who this strange messenger is, all she finds is a mysterious parcel addressed to her – but not using her given name. The parcel is addressed to ‘Twistrose’ – a name she has given herself, but which she has not told anyone else about. How can this be?

Inside the package, Lin finds a pair of keys. One opens the door to the cellar, entry to which had been forbidden by their landlady, but Lin ignores that and goes down there anyway. The second key, shaped like a rose complete with thorns, opens up a passageway through the wall of her cellar into a different world entirely. Lin finds herself in the land of Sylver – and reunited with her beloved Rufus, who is now as tall as she is, and able to speak.

Lin is a Twistrose, or a special child with power to pass between our world and that of Sylver. She is not the first – several others have been there before her, and all of them have succeeded in carrying out a special, vital task, something which only they can do. Lin’s task is perhaps the most important of all. In order for Sylver’s magic to continue, it depends on the gate which leads to the ‘real’ world being kept open – but a special boy, a Winterfyrst, with the power to do just this, is missing. Lin must find him before the night is out, or Sylver will die – and her passage back home will be closed forever.

I liked the basic plot of this book, as I’ve outlined it above. However, there was far more to the book than just this. We also had plots and counter-plots, intrigue and skulduggery from some of the animal characters; we had a whole subplot involving the boy (Isvan Winterfyrst) and his mother, who is also missing; we had the land of Nightmare, kept separate from Sylver by the Palisade which is also at the risk of failing and, thereby, wreaking havoc on the inhabitants of this pet-afterlife. We had the ‘baddie’, named the Margrave, who is mentioned throughout the book but who only appears very briefly near the end. In short, there was a lot going on.

Perhaps it’s as a result of this packed narrative, and maybe also a certain coolness and compactness of phrase which is common to a lot of Scandinavian authors, but I never really felt I got a sense of Lin. I was far more emotionally invested in Rufus, her pet, who is more roundly described and more engagingly realised than his human. I liked the fact that we have a character named Teodor – a fox, fittingly – who we’re never quite sure of; is he good, or bad? What are his motivations? I liked the writing, which – very regularly – had me nodding my head or smiling at a particularly well-turned phrase. However, there were a lot of coincidences in this story, and things popping up just when they’re needed, like a magical sled with a personality which just happens to have the power to do exactly what’s needed, right when it’s needed, which I just couldn’t buy. Also, the phrase ‘by an incredible stroke of luck’ appears at least twice. If you’re relying on ‘incredible strokes of luck’ more than once in a book, then something isn’t quite right with your plotting, I feel.

I had worked out who the Margrave was long before ‘the reveal’, and I should think any child who has read the Harry Potter books would be able to do the same. This isn’t a problem, as such – but what I wish is that there had been more time devoted to this character. Almhjell could have written a whole book based solely on the Margrave, and she could have written another based solely on Isvan Winterfyrst. This means ‘The Twistrose Key’ is complex and layered, but also frustrating in its lack of character development. The book is not short, but there’s just so much going on that some of the wonderful elements in it don’t have the room they need to breathe.

I did enjoy the book, but it wasn’t – for me – a patch on Philip Pullman or Garth Nix or J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis, or any of the other authors whom Almhjell seems to be modelling herself on. I will look out for her future work, and hope she doesn’t throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into her next novel.

 

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 Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place’, Bk. 1

My dears, it has happened again – I’ve just finished reading a book which I felt full sure I would adore, and about which I found much to love, and yet…

It didn’t really rock my world as much as I’d hoped it would.

Is it just me?

Image: yalibrariantales.com

Image: yalibrariantales.com

There’s so much wonderfulness about this book, most of it centring on the way Maryrose Wood writes. I loved her slightly eccentric, ever-so old-fashioned style, which suits the premise behind the book and helps to site it very clearly in the nineteenth century (though, to be fair, we’re reminded of that at every turn.) I liked her independent and strong-minded heroine, Miss Penelope Lumley, a graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, who is engaged as governess in the household of Lord and Lady Ashton, and I loved the children, including their wonderful names – Alexander (for ‘the Great’), Beowulf (needs no elaboration!) and Cassiopeia.

Her charges, however, are a little on the challenging side – particularly considering their mistress is barely fifteen, and in her first teaching role – and are far from being the sweet, gentle-spirited children about whom Penelope dreams of teaching as she travels to Ashton Place. Instead, they have been found in the forest around the house, half-wild and completely uncivilised, and are unable to even dress themselves. Lord Ashton has a strange ‘finders keepers’ attitude toward the children, and wishes to take them into his household and educate them, much to the chagrin of his new young bride, who did not sign up to be a stepmother, and has to adjust to living with three children to whom she is not related while barely being out of her teens herself. As well as all this, the story begins to hint that there is a deeper tale to tell about the children’s origins, and their mysterious appearance in Lord Ashton’s forest.

All of this is great. I loved reading about how the children learn (impossibly fast, of course, but I suspect this will be explained as this series of books goes on), and about their amusing escapades. I enjoyed Miss Lumley’s reminiscences about her schooldays, and I found myself really enjoying the interplay between Lord and Lady Ashton, and the inferences one can draw about their marriage, and about Lord Ashton’s true motive for bringing in the children, just from the small hints dropped by the narrator.

However – and this is a big ‘however’ – not a lot happens in this book.

It is 267 pages long, in my edition, and it didn’t need to be. I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy what I read, just that I was hoping for something interesting to happen. The ‘Mysterious Howling’ of the title – for the book’s full title is ‘The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling’ – is only barely mentioned right at the end, and a potentially really interesting set-piece, which could have been perfect for a thrilling chase or an exciting escape, was not used at all.

I did like the fact that we’re led to believe some of Lord Ashton’s chums don’t see the children as human beings at all, but instead as lesser creatures (in fact, this idea crops up several times, and it is interesting and important), but not enough was made of the tension that this situation evokes. We have a lot of detail about stuff that’s not really significant, and a lot of time is spent dwelling on Penelope’s love for poetry and classical literature, which she imparts to the children – and I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, just that it invites a reader to skip over it when it’s used in such quantities. I enjoyed the fact that Penelope uses the Longfellow poem ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ to entertain the children, because it has particular memories of childhood for me, and the scene near the end of the book when the children perform a dramatic re-enactment of this poem is delightful.

Also, I like a book where the narrator takes the reader aside once in a while (what reader doesn’t? Surely it’s one of the fastest ways to build a connection betwixt reader and words on the page, and has a long and venerable history dating right the way back to medieval literature. Do you see what I did there?), but this book does it a little too often. Several chapters in a row begin with the exact same motif, and I have to admit I was a little frustrated by that. It felt like the same thing was happening over and over again, both in terms of plot and structure, and that wasn’t enjoyable. The book is warm and funny, and several scenes involving the children getting their social mores wrong are undoubtedly amusing and enjoyable to read, but I felt it was a little like a one-trick pony after a while.

Jon Klassen did the illustrations for this book, and they are marvellous, as one would expect. Part of the reason I bought this book was its beautiful cover, drawn by the aforementioned Mr Klassen, and its gorgeous American binding – it fell open in my hand so naturally and wonderfully, and I can never resist that. However, mention of the book’s ‘American-ness’ brings me to another thing that irritated me about it – it’s supposed to be set in England, but everything about it smacks of America. I wasn’t able to believe for a second that we were dealing with an English girl living in an English house with English people. Perhaps it was the US spelling in my edition, or something, but I kept seeing Penelope and her charges in a large colonial house in New England, instead of ‘Old’ England. This wasn’t a problem – I just mentally transposed the characters – but I’m sure the author wouldn’t be too pleased with me.

I would recommend this book, because it is pleasant and charming and funny and a little bit different. I’ve never read a children’s book like it, at least. However, it is the first book in a series of four, and I don’t think I’ll be back for the other three, and that sort of says it all, I guess.

The three children performing 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' - my favourite part of the book, and also my favourite illustration. Image: kidzbop.com, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

The three children performing ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ – my favourite part of the book, and also my favourite illustration. Image: kidzbop.com, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

 

Bookish Bamboozlement

So, I spent most of the weekend reading.

Even though this looks extremely uncomfortable, I still want to do it... Image: lifedev.net

Even though this looks extremely uncomfortable, I still want to do it…
Image: lifedev.net

No surprise there, really. What was surprising, though, was the effect the books I chose to read this weekend had on me. You might expect euphoria; you might expect joy. You might also expect something like total absorption and utter devotion, because – of course – this is normally how I describe my reading life. There’s very little I like doing more. Reading, for me, comes a close second to breathing.

But, this weekend, I was irritated. I was annoyed. I was left disappointed and somewhat disillusioned at the end of my long and weary struggle to finish reading the books I’d chosen. I don’t like giving up on a book, so I kept going till the bitter end, but I’m being honest when I say that both these reads were a challenge (and not in a good way.) I’m not going to name the books, because I don’t believe in doing that – plenty of other readers have, clearly, loved these books, so who am I to criticise their taste? – but let me just say that the books I read were ones written for children, and they had received great reviews. They were both written by authors with long and successful careers (though not as children’s authors – one writes for adults, usually, and the other is more involved in the film industry.) They’d been given excellent cover ‘blurbs’ from established authors I admire, and both of them promised wonderful things, if their back covers were anything to go by. They were enticing enough for me to pick them up and buy them, at least.

Reading them, however, made me feel like this:

Image: teachingchildrenmanners.com

Image: teachingchildrenmanners.com

Both these books were long – in the region of 500 pages. Both were epic, sweeping stories, the first (apparently) in their respective future series. One was slightly better than the other in terms of being in touch with how real children speak and think and act, and featured a group of siblings fighting for survival in a fantasy world that seems to change and twist at random (even though it’s plainly obvious what’s happening to any reader with a speck of intelligence); the other was written in language which no child since Shakespearean times has used, and it was filled with long monologues of exposition, in which characters explain things to one another. This doesn’t just happen once or twice, in which case it’s excusable – it happens all the time.

The following paragraph isn’t, of course, taken from the book. It’s taken from the pit of my imagination. But it may give you some sense of what the book was like:

‘Humphrey, as you’re aware, when the moon and Venus, planet of beauty and love, reach a particular alignment in the heavens, the Gods of the West Wind will be so enraged by their intimacy that they will unleash a storm of fearsome and unprecedented force upon us poor weaklings here below.’
‘Why, yes, Gerald! Every child, from their earliest sparks of understanding, is taught the story of the Jealous West Wind at their mother’s knee
. But surely you don’t mean…’
‘Yes, Humphrey! Yes. We must face it. Look upon the sky and tell me what you see.’
‘Why, a raging red mist, spreading from edge to edge along the horizon. What can it portend?’
‘The storm, Humphrey. The storm! It is coming!’
*cue alarms, distress, swords clanking, etc.*

Oh, really? Image: jannawqe.com

Oh, really?
Image: jannawqe.com

Very little irritates me more than the Huge Monologue, where characters get up on their soapboxes – much like I’m doing here, funnily enough – and rant on about something or tell one another things which could have been uncovered through adventure and storytelling instead. Another thing which annoys me in children’s books is the use of coincidence – oh, look, we’re being chased by the bad guys with swords, so let’s race for our lives down to the docks and hop on the first boat we come across which of course happens to be the one which contains the magical cargo we need to get to our destination (sorry, I’m running out of breath); or – wow, how cool is this – the one person we come across in the course of our adventuring is the only person in the world who knows exactly what we’re looking for, how to find it, and is willing to bring us for a reasonable fee.

Don’t worry about that sound you’re hearing – it’s just me, grinding my teeth.

This book – the one I’m not going to name, with the ridiculously complicated and old-fashioned and tension-free monologues in it – was also packed full of coincidences. The protagonist (I hesitate to call him a hero, because he doesn’t actually do very much. For example – by the time he comes back from his quest, the reason for which had nothing to do with the conclusion of the book, the people of his home city had – in his absence – arranged to overthrow their despotic leader. Yet, somehow, when it comes time to give credit for their victory in battle, our protagonist is responsible for all of it) was continually running into people who were falling over themselves to help him, or finding things to give him a hand along the way.

I needed to take a few deep breaths by the time I was finished reading this book. It was either that, or fling it against a wall.

The book read like it was written by someone who doesn’t read children’s books. In fact, both of them did. They were both too long – the book about the siblings felt, to me, like someone had taken every single thing they thought would be cool to include, and flung them all, regardless of sense or interest or plausibility, into the plot just for laughs, and don’t get me started on the other one – and could have been edited to make them far more crisp and exciting. I found my attention wandering, my eyes sliding off the page, and my brain being strangled by the sheer tedium of sentence after sentence after sentence.

I am a person who reads. I am used to it. I am a person who loves and adores and lives and breathes children’s books. I didn’t find the books hard to read because they were written for kids. Reading them, however, has made me want to read something totally different for my next book, in order to try to re-set my brain, and I think that’s sad.

But the thing that upset me the most about this weekend’s reading?

Both these books are published, have been successful, and – to my mind – break every ‘rule’ that children’s books are supposed to have.

It’s almost enough to smash one’s tiny, tiny heart.

Image: colourbox.com

Image: colourbox.com

Happy Monday! Onwards and upwards from here, chums.