Tag Archives: Sarah Crossan

Book Review Saturday – ‘One’

Sarah Crossan’s One is a novel I fully expected not to like. I hope, if the author sees this opening sentence, that she isn’t offended; it will come as some comfort, no doubt, that I soon learned the error of my ways. I’m not convinced by novels written in verse, you see. I appreciate the effort it takes and the precision of language and even the pretty layout on the pages, but still. Something in me wonders if it’s necessary.

Well. One is such a beautiful story – and so deeply emotionally engaging – that the format in which it’s told hardly matters. By saying this I don’t mean to undermine Sarah Crossan’s artistry and achievement; the book is a piece of finely crafted writing. What I mean is, it soon won over even this hardened anti-poetry cynic. Eventually I forgot I was even reading. The story played out in my mind as though someone else was narrating it, or I was watching it on a screen. I think this effect was probably due to the skill with which the words were laid out on the page. In some ways it’s sparse, and in others so rich and rewarding that it ensures One is a book which lingers.


Image: independent.co.uk

One tells the story of twins Tippi and Grace, named for Hitchcock’s favourite actresses. They are pretty, intelligent, interesting and loving girls who do well at school and who have dreams of happiness, crushes on boys, and desires for their lives. They are also conjoined, their bodies united below the waist. They have two hearts and two sets of lungs, but only one pair of legs. Their life is a constant tension between how they see themselves – as a pair of individuals – and how some others see them, as a unit. As the book opens their family is facing financial ruin, and the girls’ medical treatment, which is expensive, is eating away at their resources. So, for the first time, the girls have to go to public school – and they also have to make a choice which will mean some money coming in, but which will also take away the last vestige of their privacy.

In a book like this, of course the plot is going to be somewhat predictable. We have a pair of conjoined twins; naturally, the idea of separation is going to arise. It’s not necessarily something the girls want (though of course it’s something they’ve thought about), but it gradually becomes evident that it is something they need to consider, and fast. The story then takes us in an unexpected and heartwrenching direction – but I’m not going to be drawn on that.

The book’s power is in the way it depicts the relationships between its characters. Everyone in Grace and Tippi’s family has something going on, including their sister (who suffers from an eating disorder, and who I would have loved to read more about, and their father who struggles with alcoholism), and I really enjoyed that Crossan doesn’t make Grace and Tippi the ‘odd ones out’, the token disabled people in an otherwise perfect family. I loved the way she describes the girls’ nascent longing for love and romantic connection, their complete integration with one another, their deep and unfathomable love for one another, the depth of the decisions they must face and how there is, in truth, no right answer to any of their complex challenges. I’m still not quite sure what the poetry brought to the story, but I just know that I loved it, and that the book will live with me for a long time. I happened to read it as I sat in hospital just beginning the process of labour (my child was born the following day) and this gave it a deep resonance for me, too. I could connect powerfully with the ideas of fetal development and birth, touched on at the book’s start, and the feelings of the girls’ mother both as she learned the truth of her daughters’ condition and what it would mean for them, long-term, and also the reality of the situation they find themselves in during the course of the story. The truths in this book (including the difficulty of dealing with medical complications, the effects it has on other members of the family, the reality of alcoholism, unemployment and family dysfunction) are fantastically well realised, and the whole is saved from bleakness and despair by the wonderful characterisation and the strength of the sisters’ connection.

In short, this is a book which doesn’t take long to read, due to its form, but which will live long in your mind and memory. It’s affecting, emotional, beautiful, and above all true, in the sense that all good literature is true. It encapsulates life in all its complexity and unpredictability, in all its joys and sorrows, and it is beautiful.  A definite recommendation.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Weight of Water’ and ‘Breathe’


Not only is it Saturday, friends, but it’s now June, too. What on earth is going on with this relentless forwardness, eh? It’s enough to make a gal’s head spin. In any case, we’ve got to keep on keepin’ on, and in that spirit I present to you a review – not so much of a particular book this week, but of an author’s oeuvre to date. (Don’t worry – she has ‘only’ published two books so far. We won’t be here all day, or anything.)

I thought I’d do my review like this because I have such varying feelings about the two books in question, both written by Irish-American author Sarah Crossan. One of these books is among the most unique and crafted pieces of fiction I’ve read for the YA readership (or, indeed, in general); the other is also an excellent book, but somehow lacking. The former is this book, right here:

Image: yellowbrickreads.com

Image: yellowbrickreads.com

The latter book is this ‘un here:

Image: epicreads.com

Image: epicreads.com

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so torn between two books by the same author before. It’s probably because I read ‘The Weight of Water’ first, and – to be fair – very little could stack up against it. What makes the book so special is not even the plot, or the characterisation, or the setting, or the dénouement (even though all these things are great, in their own right), but the fact that it is entirely written in verse.

Yes. Verse.

I’m not talking Shakespearean sonnets or rhyming couplets here – more like free-form verse, perhaps, than anything – but this narrative style lends the book such power and heft that it’s hard to imagine how it could have been done any better.

The story takes us through a journey made from Poland to the UK, undertaken by Kasienka and her mother. They are searching for Kasienka’s father, who has abandoned his family, leaving them practically destitute, not to mention heartbroken. They have no idea of his whereabouts until they receive a postcard from him with a British postmark, which leads to their arrival in the UK. The first poem in the book describes their leaving Poland, and Kasienka’s mother’s obsession with a borrowed nylon laundry bag full of clean clothes which is at once a source of pride (because the clothes are clean), and a source of embarrassment (because they’re in a borrowed and unstylish bag), for her. When they eventually arrive in Britain, she is too ashamed to claim the bag of clothes from the baggage carousel, and so they leave it behind. It’s a small image, but I found it very effective in describing the mental and emotional baggage they bring with them from their home country; the mental baggage, of course, is much more difficult to leave behind.

Kasienka (immediately dubbed ‘Cassie’ by her teachers and schoolmates, none of whom can be bothered to learn her real name) is put in with children much younger than herself when she begins to attend school, simply because her English is not perfect; bored and understimulated, she sticks out from the others from the outset. When her intelligence is discovered, she is finally placed among her peers, but finds she is still an outsider. Exotic, intelligent and a talented swimmer, she becomes an object of jealousy among the other girls. The book takes us through Kasienka’s savage treatment at the hands of bullies, the practical, not to mention emotional, difficulties she experiences in sharing a one-bedroomed flat with her heartbroken and out-of-touch mother, the ongoing search for her father, her swimming prowess, and her courage in carving out a new life from a country and community that seems, at least at first, unyielding. Kasienka’s voice, aided by the powerful verse narration, is evocative and touching, and her courage is unmatched. I devoured this book, not only because I loved the story, but because I loved Kasienka, too.

It’s no wonder this book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Give it a go. Go on.

Then, we come to ‘Breathe’.

Before I get into my thoughts on this book, I want to say that I read it with relish, and enjoyed it. It’s well written, with wonderful descriptions and imagery, and an expert use of language. Sarah Crossan is an exceptional writer, and ‘Breathe’ shows her mastery of prose just as clearly as ‘The Weight of Water’ showed her mastery of verse. Having said that, ‘Breathe’ just seemed ‘same-old, same-old’ in comparison with ‘Water’.

‘Breathe’ imagines a world in which the oxygen supply has dwindled to a point where it can no longer sustain life. The remnants of humanity live in a sealed dome; to leave this Pod is to enter the airless wastes, wherein nobody can go very far because, obviously, bottled air will only last so long. Even within the Pod, there are societal divisions; the upper levels of society (Premiums), who can afford sufficient oxygen, never have to worry about counting their breaths, but the lower levels, Auxiliaries, must make do with thinner air. The government who runs this dystopian world is called Breathe, and they control the lives of everyone who lives on this terrible vision of a future Earth. Naturally, in a dystopia where we have an oppressive regime, there will also be a resistance – this book is no different. The Resistance want to try to repopulate the planet’s surface with trees (they were all cut down, which led to the oxygen deprivation in the first place), but they are thwarted at every turn by Breathe. What happens, then, when a desperate Resistance fighter meets an idealistic young Premium and his best friend, an Auxiliary girl with aspirations to become a Premium herself, and all three are ejected into the airless wastes?

There’s a lot of good stuff in this book. The whole set-up of the world lends oppressive urgency to proceedings, which makes the plot zip along pleasingly. The horrors of slow suffocation are described, and we are left in no doubt as to what the people of this world are risking when they mess about with their air supply. Several times, as I read, I felt compelled to take a deep breath, just because I could. Oxygen never seemed like a luxury until I read this novel. I really liked Alina, the Resistance fighter character – she’s hard and flinty and resolved, just as she should be, and I also liked Maude, an elderly woman eking out an existence in the Outside with a long and dark past behind her. I enjoyed the SF elements – the solar air tanks, the ‘zips’ (robotic search-and-destroy units which detect body heat), and the well-imagined stratified society within the Pod.

However, I had issues with Bea (the Auxiliary girl) and Quinn (the Premium boy), mostly to do with the love story between them, which felt flat and uninspired, and also – if I’m being honest – unnecessary. Also, a lot of the time, I was confused as to whether Bea or Alina was narrating (the book’s narration hops between these three main characters, but Bea’s voice and Alina’s are similar enough to blend together at times.) Bea is a good character, but her devotion to Quinn was a little irritating – that said, as a teenager I often mooned over wildly inappropriate boys, too, so I can’t judge her too harshly – and Quinn, to be fair, does show a reasonable amount of character development as the book carries on. He’s still a bit of a blockhead at the end, though.

I thought the end of the book went a little too quickly, and things were wrapped up a little too well – but a sequel is imminent this year, so I’ll hold judgement till then.

‘Breathe’ is a reasonable dystopian thriller, but there are plenty of those already out there. However, there’s nothing like ‘The Weight of Water’ in the world, at least not that I’ve ever read. I’d recommend both books, but maybe read ‘Breathe’ first. I’m just sayin’.

Happy weekend, amigos. Go! Read!

Rebelling and Rulebreaking (Part 1)

Well. What a weekend that was. How is everyone this morning? I hope you’re all as happy as, and slightly less exhausted than, my good self.

Today’s blog post is going to be all about this:

Image: jabberworks.co.uk (also, a site worth visiting in its own right!)

Image: jabberworks.co.uk (also, a site worth visiting in its own right!)

My brain, this cloudy morning, is swimming with everything I learned and saw and felt this past weekend at ‘Rebels and Rulebreakers’, the Children’s Books Ireland conference – and I was only able to attend the first day. I’d probably be bamboozled altogether if I’d been lucky enough to attend both days! But that’s a treat for next year, hopefully.

I’d been looking forward to Rebels and Rulebreakers for weeks, impatiently waiting for the days to roll around, and – quite possibly – talking about it incessantly. So, on Saturday morning, bright and early, my wonderful husband drove me all the way to Dublin, just to be sure I made it to the conference on time. Where we live, there are loads of trains and buses to the capital, but at the weekends they run on ‘country time’ – i.e. they don’t start until quite late in the morning (trains), and/or they turn up when they feel like it (buses). So, because I was lucky enough to have a lift, I was a little early. I wandered around Smithfield (a very pretty part of Dublin city, where the Jameson Whiskey Distillery is – you may have heard of that!) looking at things like the gorgeous wall art looking down over the central square, and the faux meadow, complete with grass and niftily carved wooden sheep, around which children – and several parents – were having great fun. The place was filled with tourists and sightseers, and there was such a bright and happy buzz over everything.

I was a little nervous, though. I felt like an interloper on the red carpet at the Oscars. But more of that anon.

After I’d registered, and received my snazzy name-tag, lanyard and conference tote bag, I was ready to hit the bookshop. I think I may have been the first person to wander down towards it, which is just the way I like it. I picked up some gems, including this wonderful book (which I actually managed to read, in its entirety, on Saturday, between talks and over lunch and on the way home. It’s that good):

Image: yellowbrickreads.com

Image: yellowbrickreads.com

There was just time for some chatting, and some exploration of the Lighthouse Cinema (the building in which the conference was taking place – an absolutely beautiful space) before the first talk of the morning.

The opening talk was given by Sarah Ardizzone, a translator of children’s and YA books from French to English, and it was eye-opening. I learned that translating a book from one language to another is so much more than dustily looking up words in a dictionary and placing them in an approximation of the right order on the page. Instead, it’s like delivering a baby, perhaps; you have to handle this living, squirming, new and unknown creature, a text that breathes and pulses in its own language, and capture not only the story it’s telling but also the nuances of the words – the slang (which is forever changing), the cultural moment, the complex, organic, fresh wonder of it – accurately and realistically and idiomatically in an entirely different language. Ms. Ardizzone told us how she interacts with young people from England, and also France and the Francophone world, in order to develop an ear for the music of their ‘slanguage’, their sparkling uses for words, their unique way of constructing sentences, to make sure the translation she produces will speak to the young people who read it, and sound authentic and real. She gave an insight into how translation, and the act of translation, can help to bring schoolchildren together, and she told us about a project called Translation Nation, with which she is heavily involved, which aims to bring children together in collaborative translation, working with stories and tales from all over the world.

The saddest statistic of the day, however, came from Ms. Ardizzone’s talk. She said that, in the Anglophone world, only between 1 and 3 per cent of children’s books are translated from other languages. What a world of stories children who can only read English are missing out on.

Next came a talk from the French illustrator extraordinaire, Hervé Tullet.

Image: oldcatblackboo.blogspot.com

Image: oldcatblackboo.blogspot.com

I don’t think I’ve ever been so entertained by a man making noises and pointing at shapes in a picture book ever before in my life. We’d already been introduced to M. Tullet during Ms. Ardizzone’s talk, when she’d asked him to step in and play the role of the ‘Loup’ (Wolf) in a French-language edition of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ – so, I expected him to be funny.

But I didn’t expect him to make me laugh so hard that tears rolled down my face.

He read from a selection of his work, including his masterful ‘I Am Blop’, a book that takes one simple shape (the ‘blop’ of the title) and manages to use it to teach children about size, colour, number, perspective, reflection, as well as themselves and their place in the world. I was astounded as I watched M. Tullet bring his own book to life using sounds and voice effects.

Image: timeout.com

Image: timeout.com

Unless I’d seen it performed in front of me, I’d never have believed such a simple shape could literally bring me to a new level of understanding. Funnily enough, I felt my own perception change and grow as I watched the performance, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that Blop itself does not change shape at all throughout the book. As I watched, my mind was opened and brought to a place in which I could completely understand how a child would see Blop – see it negotiating its world, fitting in (or not) with its peers, growing bigger, changing colour, changing from being the only blop on the page to being one of many – and how they would understand, instinctively, that they, the child reading or being read to, were just like Blop.  And, more importantly, if Blop can hold its own through all this change and newness and growth, so can they. What an encouraging and confidence-building little book – and all done with a shape, and minimal text!

Oh, but look. I’ve reached my upper word limit for blog posts already. I have so much more to share, but it will have to wait for another day. In the spirit of rebelling and rulebreaking, then, I’ll break my recollections into several blog posts, and I hope you’ll enjoy reliving my memories of a wonderful day along with me.

Happy new week, everyone! And remember – you are Blop.