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