Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Top Secret Diary of Pig

A momentous day for the Little Wooden Horse. It's time to let the fellow reviewers TAKE OVER. A bit anyway. Here's Bill's very first, own typed review for Emer Stamp's 'Top Secret Diary of Pig', which he grabbed to re-read for the second time today as a little light relief from the harder work of book 4 of Skulduggery Pleasant.

"It is about a Pig that speaks slang and lives on a farm which is run by a hungry farmer and his wife.Pig has a friend called duck and funnily enough he`s a duck.Next door to Pig are the chicken`s though Pig calls them Evil chicken`s.I like this book because it`s funny and full of poo."

There you go. Goodness; suddenly realise how pointlessly verbose I've been all this time. Nothing much to add to that except to say pig's adventures and his enforced spaceflight, also made me giggle; despite the fact  it is REALLY full of poo. A good, silly choice for those who want their farts with heart.

There was a great tutorial by Emer Stamp on how to draw all those 'Evil chicken's' in yesterday's Guardian.

'The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of pig' by Emer Stamp, pub Scholastic isbn. 978-1407136370

Thanks to Scholastic for a Review copy many moons ago.  Bill's decision to review and his opinions are his own.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Toby Alone, The Last Wild and reading aloud

Bill's off school today. He's a bit ill but not very ill. So far he's gouged some eye holes out a large cardboard box, done some posing and ambushing with the pressure washer hose gun, mucked about with Lego, flicked through the Guinness Book of Records and is now lying on the carpet moaning gently- mostly for effect.
It's probably time I read him some more story to accompany his moans.
There's been a bit of discussion/blogging recently about whether and when children grow out of being read to. I was delighted to see via the comments section on this great post by Clara Vulliamy that the consensus seems to be never. Clara herself read 'War and Peace' out loud to her son. This deserves Special Mentions and Ribbons in the roll call of reading out loud Honours I think.
I have banged on about this before but I want to bang on about it again- reading to a 9 year old is different to reading to a 4 year old (which is different to reading to a baby of course) but has even richer rewards. You get to go deep over days or weeks into another place, you get to milk cliffhangers, you get to experience proper big exciting stuff together. You may even get to make you both cry. It's all good.

The last book we read was 'Toby Alone' by Timothee de Fombelle. This definitely had moments for all of the above in spades. Translated from the French I knew this book had fans among some Twitter friends but both Bill and I came to it fresh. That's the best way I think- neither of you quite knowing what's going to happen next. Bill wouldn't have the patience to manage 'Toby Alone' on his own yet. The narrative shifts time frame confusingly and some of the language is a little laboured (although that may be due to translation). There are also a lot of trickily named characters that take a bit of learning. Not a bad stand in for working up to reading 'War and Peace' perhaps then? It's also not a bad stand in for that book in being a dizzyingly good piece of world creation with a gripping story to tell.

The world created here is 'The Tree'; a nation state whose self-sufficient millimetre tall inhabitants are uncertain and distrustful of what lies beyond their branches. The story has lessons to teach about the environment, the management of natural resources and also about the dangers of nationalism and totalitarianism. This could be overly-didactic but isn't- thanks to the central story of on-the-run 13yr old Toby and the life-threatening danger he more or less constantly finds himself in. We both loved it; particularly the even-smaller then the Borrowers world scale: A puddle in the crook of a branch becomes a vast  lake, insect grubs - farm animals, a mosquito - a monstrous assailant to fight. A book both serious and charming.

Now we've (lacking the sequel to 'Toby' as yet) moved on to a different but equally enjoyable dose of ecological doom in the form of Piers Torbay's 'The Last Wild'. I have the advantage of Bill this time because I couldn't resist reading this all myself first. Coo it's a bit of a page turner. Another on-the-run (albeit of standard size) boy with a mission, Kester has the gift to communicate with the last surviving animals of a viral catastrophe which has left the whole world in thrall to sinister pink-gloop food manufacturer Facto. 'The Last Wild' manages to be simultaneously dystopian, heart wrenching AND funny and you can't ask for more than that can you? I love the imperious cockroach General and the cocky young wolf. We're about half way though now and I'm not allowed out in the evenings at the moment or Bill will miss an installment and sulk at me loudly the next day.
There's about to be a sequel to that too- and then a third. Perhaps all the best read aloud books come in three volumes? War and Peace here we come then.

Just keep reading to them. It's tops.
'Toby Alone' by Timothee de Fombelle, published by Walker Books, isbn 978-1406307269
'The Last Wild' by Piers Torday, published by Quercus, isbn 978-178087830

Friday, 7 March 2014

Girl with a White Dog

I went to a book launch last weekend. I was so delighted to be there to help celebrate. Going there I realised I'd never actually met the author before but that seemed quite strange because I really felt as if I had. I've 'known' Anne Booth through the strange medium that is Twitter for a couple of years now and I've followed the progress of 'Girl with a White Dog' from draft to agented to submitted to- small gasp- PUBLISHED during that time. Hooray! Anne is an author. It's been a vicarious thrill to follow that journey.

Anyone that has/does 'follow' Anne on Twitter understands quite quickly that she is one of life's goodies; someone who not just cares about people and the issues that affect them but acts on those cares too. It's a tricky thing sometimes; being 'good' in this speedy, self-centred world of ours. Kindness can be such an underrated virtue. And kindness, goodness, the softer, less certain sides of being a teenager in the here and now can get just as overlooked in contemporary children's books. I knew Anne's book would be concerned with these things; would be "good" in that sense but would it also be a page turner, an enjoyable/exciting read? Would it (cough) also be GOOD?

The fact that I read the whole thing in one greedy gollop on the way home from the launch and ended up embarrassingly moist eyed and somewhat snotty on the tube answers that question. 'Girl with a White Dog' is a wonderful read; combing a soft and funny understanding of the complications of Year 9 life with a gently challenging exploration of the consequences of indoctrination and prejudice.

There's some pretty weighty stuff hiding within its pages. The consequences of family break up, dementia, disability, economic migration, racism and most centrally; the long shadows of the Holocaust. But it wears all this weight so lightly. It's also a story about a teenager, a cute boy and a naughty puppy. Such a tricky balance to have achieved. Be warned; it's sneakily sweet and THEN it makes you sob.

This is a book that's going to be part of every school library for a long time to come. That will be loved AND taught from I think. I feel very proud to have seen it into the world and read one of the first copies. I will be able to look back and say "I was the one who ate all the Extremely Chocolatey Minibites at the launch of that book y'know." We all have a contribution to make. Congratulations Anne.
'Girl with a White Dog' by Anne Booth, pub. Catnip isbn  978-1846471810

Friday, 21 February 2014


Bill is the grip of Graphic Novel Fever at the moment. After a friend shared the first volume of a Manga adaptation of Darren Shan's 'Cirque du Freak' with him in the back of the bus on a school trip a week or two ago he came back with eyes blazing. "It's SO SICK. Please can we get it? Please can we? Please can we?? Can we, can we, CAN we????" I've not seen him with that book hunger in a while.
Cue a trip to Gosh, Orbital and Forbidden Planet at the weekend to stock up with half term treats. I'd never taken Bill to Forbidden Planet before. He actually got a bit quivery when we went inside. He was like...well I guess he was like a kid in a comic shop. We spent a LONG time browsing Adventure Time figurines...

The required volumes of Manga 'Cirque Du Freak' proved disappointingly tricksome to track down however even within these warehouses of delight. It didn't stop us spending money. Another volume of Adventure Time comic, the acclaimed graphic novelisation of Coraline, Silverfin- all have been gobbled down on the sofa and on the tube this week as we've been out and about seeking half term Fun.

I picked up the first volume of Kazu Kibuishi's 'Amulet' series almost in passing. It looked too tempting to pass by. It's already proved an expensive impulse buy- as we immediately had to go back for the next two volumes and I am now being pestered continuously for the two last. Ah well. It's a bit lovely-an investment that'll be returned to I'm sure.

There is a whole vocabulary and set of references that I'm sure I should be employing to write about it- but although I'm not completely illiterate in the form, I am basically a newbie to the world of graphic novels. This is an outsider's perspective: 'Amulet' is an action packed romp through a fantasy world of glowing stones, evil elves, martial art expert foxes, talking trees, walking houses and lost cities in the sky. It's a bit Hobbity, a bit Star Warsy and a bit Studio Ghibli-y. There's a lot of fighting, some occasionally portentous speeches, and some funny robots too. There's also (be warned) some rather sad/scary bits. It has LITERALLY been unputdownable for Bill (alright I didn't put it down either... ) It also has the requisite kickass heroine. Huzzah.

Elf based fantasy isn't necessarily my bag but all I can say about 'Amulet' is that I can't imagine a more enticing book to put in front of that often mentioned mythical creature- the 'reluctant reader'- whether male OR female. The speech bubble text is clear, linear and easy to read and the action is non-stop. There's some awful pretty spreads in there too. Bill was finishing off the third volume in the tube yesterday and there was a boy sitting opposite him who was almost salivating at the sight of it, craning and jiggling to get a better look. He ended up asking his Dad for a piece of paper and a pen. As he got off the tube I saw he'd written a big underlined heading BOOKS and then halfway down the page the single word- 'Amulet'. Pester power based on the cover alone (and maybe Bill's obvious greedy pleasure).

The 'Amulet' series by Kazu Kibuishi, pub. Scholastic isbn 978-0-439-84681-3 This is a US import only (I think) so you may need to visit a specialist comic shop or (sigh) use Amazon to get hold of it.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Our Little Free Library

About 4 weeks ago, Twitter chum and all round rather-amazing-force-for-good-with-children's-books-things person, Carmen Haselup drew my attention to something called the Little Free Library organisation.

Set up in America but now spreading all over the world, these are mini self-contained book sheds put outside people's houses or in community spaces to provide an opportunity for sharing and swapping books with friends, neighbours and passers by.

Carmen herself knows a bit about community libraries, being the founder of the AMAZING Rainbow library- a labour of love that has put a whole lot of picture books into the hands of a whole lot of local previously unbooky nursery kids over the last year. She blogs about the powerful effect it has had here. Go look.

I went off to look at and thought two things.

1. That's cool.


2. I want one.

Being a Veruca Salt kinda girl I didn't stop there. I forwarded the link to my handy with tools father-in-law, a retired man with two and a half sheds of his own and a fondness for a Project.

Two weeks later he had built this-
almost entirely out of salvaged bits and pieces too. Just £10 for a bit of interior insulation and the cost of a fence post to put it on.

Our little library opened on Sunday. It's got a mixture of picture books, older kids fiction and grown up fiction and non-fiction- as broad a general mix as we could get from a random clear out of our shelves. And four days later, about 8 books or so have been 'borrowed' from all different categories and 3 new ones have appeared too. We've had lots of lovely comments from people passing and the local paper have even been to take a photo.

I love it. I keep going out to stroke it and rearrange the spines. Turns out I have a rampant inner librarian that was itching to be released...
 What I love most about it is that it's easy- manageable- something almost anyone can do (depending on your location and outside space obviously). People have been sending me photos of amazing little library spaces customised out of old phone boxes or popping up in pubs- and many are gorgeous but rather bigger enterprises than ours. Yes- it may get vandalised , yes- someone may take all the books but I'll take it calmly if that happens- it's just wood and old  paperbacks after all.

And what seems much more likely is what is already starting to happen- that we'll make some new friends, spread a little booky love and I'll always be able to find something new to read in the bath.
fellow librarians at work

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Born to Read


I went away for a bit; other stuff was demanding my attention- some of it to do with arranging words and some of it to do with cake and Christmas and family.

Anyway I'm mainly back today to SWANK.

Because I was lording it around the House of Lords on Tuesday.

I'd like to say this was because I was taking my rightful place on the red benches due to my longstanding hereditary claims to the titles of Pollyland. But that would be a lie.

I was actually there to work; invited as a Volunteer Reading Helper for literacy charity Beanstalk to promote their brilliance and their new partnership with Save the Children. I've been volunteering in a local school for three years now, reading (and playing and chatting) with three children twice a week. I like to think they get almost as much out of our half hour sessions as I do.

Beanstalk has been in existence for over 40 years and there are reading helpers throughout London and in select other pockets of the country. Save the Children is obviously a much bigger, more well known organisation and thanks to their involvement, the hope is the Beanstalk model of helping children discover the pleasures of books; the desire to read, can be expanded substantially.

On Tuesday, the Born to Read initiative was launched in the company of other volunteers, bloggers, parents, MPs, some pretty starry authors and illustrators and some delightful local school children who had to have their photos taken holding books a LOT.

Michael Gove spoke whilst I bit my tongue and studied the swirls on the posh carpet intently. Lauren Child spoke whilst I gazed at her like a dreamy loon. Charity people spoke and said what we all know; reading MATTERS. It matters more than anything else in creating social mobility and life opportunity.

Have a look at Born to Read here. They need 7000 new helpers. You need 3 hours a week to spare. Money is also good.

This is all very important. But here were MY highlights:

-In the loos next to the River Room where we all gathered was a large claw footed bath. I may now have missed my only opportunity to have a sneaky lunchtime bath in the House of Lords.

-There was disappointingly little ermine. But I did enter the building through Black Rod's Garden. The perks of being Black Rod eh? Your very own black rod AND your very own garden. And all you have to do is bang a stick once a year for the Queen.

-Our remit being to mingle and network. I went to a network a couple standing on their own in a corner. "Hello, are you reading helpers too?" says I, "In a manner of speaking, I write books- so that helps- my wife Helen draws them too." This was the point I realised I was in the hallowed company of John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury and went a little dribbly. They were very tolerant of the dribble and we had a nice chat where I learned that the Lord Mayor's coach really had broken down this year (cf. 'Humbert') and Helen Oxenbury confided that 'John NEVER reads you know- never reads at all.' I enjoyed that given the occasion.

But I expect he can read (giggle)- and that is rather the point. Not everyone is so lucky as to have a choice. Let's work to try and change that shall we?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sibling rivalry diversions

The sense of ownership you have over a beloved book as a child is a powerful and distinct force. You love it, you live it, it becomes part of you. This as discussed in Francis Spufford's 'The Child that Books Built' or in Samantha Ellis's forthcoming 'How to be a Heroine' (which I am really looking forward to) is their power and importance. Nothing I've read as an adult has filled my waking thoughts half so powerfully as Mary Plain's cream buns.

I had a lovely time a few weeks ago attending The British Library's companion talk to their 'Picture This' exhibition, listening to Ian Beck, Laura Dockrill, Philip Ardagh and Lauren Child discuss the children's books that shaped them with Julia Eccleshare. The titles they discussed were wide-ranging; some familiar, some more obscure but their experiences had much in common. There was talk of visceral  imprinting, of world views refocused and of self-discovery. And of getting lost in and liberated by the purely silly. Hooray! I, and the rest of the audience would have been happy to have continued the conversation late into the night.

There was one aspect of all this which occurred to me that didn't come up, and that is how family position and sibling dynamics feed into the books one 'owns'. I am the youngest of four; the youngest by 6 years in fact so very much the baby (or afterthought/accident depending on spin). There was already a fairly healthy children's bookshelf of treasure to pilfer by the time I was growing up and this worked in two ways: It led me to discover some titles that I might not have absorbed so thoroughly independently; my biggest brother's complete 'Asterix' collection, my big sister's 'Twins' books (and later her early Jilly Coopers), 'Our Island's Story' and the book of Greek Myths covered in the sheet of Baskin Robbins ice cream wrapping paper (the wrapping paper may have absorbed me more than the myths).

But the other way it worked was to reject those books already perceived as 'belonging' to someone else; specifically and predictably my closest in age sibling. We all want to be different. I didn't want to wear his cast-down stripy trousers and velour t shirts and have my hair cut in a pudding bowl by Alan the barber so everyone called me 'Sonny' either. I didn't have a choice about those. I did about books.

I should make it clear at this point, because he reads this blog and other than occasionally correcting my grammar/spelling has been kind about it, no blame attaches to the sibling in question. He didn't hoard his books; he was a good 'sharer' n that (merciless on a Monopoly board but that's a different blog). I even remember him reading (I think) 'The Horse and his Boy' aloud to me when I was ill in bed once. But he was also a big and passionate reader and I definitely felt some books were already 'owned' by him and thus had nothing left to be absorbed by me.

For a children's book blogger this amounts to a confessional: I have never read any C S Lewis Narnia beyond the first. I have never read any Arthur Ransome and didn't touch Tolkein before adulthood. Ursula Le Guin and Susan Cooper also remain to be properly discovered. They were all 'his'. It may well be they wouldn't have sung to me anyway but I never gave them a proper chance. Am I alone in this experience? I think about Bill and Eddie and wonder if the same rules will come into force. Eddie already rejects books on the basis that they belong to his brother. I'm pretty sure he'll be bypassing Harry Potter from second-hand overload/over-familiarity. I reckon he's on safe ground in wanting to keep his dense non-fiction transport reading matter to himself.

'The Complete Uncle' by J P Martin has just been re-published thanks to a tremendously successful Kickstarter by publisher Marcus Gipps. The husband has a hand in it and a drawing too. It's a very beautiful object. There are a few copies that can be bought I believe even if you didn't buy into the Kickstarter. But Uncle also belonged to my brother's shelves and when I dip into this volume now I can admire and laugh and boggle but I don't really love. It's not in my bones see? It didn't form me.

Not like Mary's meringues did.

As it's nearly the end of the year I'm going to hatch a piece of news that I've been sitting on like an increasingly uncomfortable egg for some months now. I acquired an agent this autumn. A rather good agent, whose existing list makes me feel a bit like that bit in 'Vertigo' where James Stewart comes over funny on a ladder. This is all very well (and definitely GOOD) but it does require me even more to write something worth publishing; exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Because children's writing, the worthwhile sort, silly or serious gets under the skin and stays there forever. No pressure then, gulp.