Monday, 26 November 2012

Before Jacqueline Wilson...

...there was Noel Streatfeild (Noel Streatfeild, Noel Streatfeild, Noel Streatfeild...I should write it out a hundred times after my Ballet Shoes post error: sloppy Faber, sloppy.)

A brief post following on from my Hunger Games/Flambards musings really.

Being a Mother of Boys, and still fairly tender aged ones at that I'll confess I haven't had that much to do with Jacqueline Wilson but I know plenty of Mothers of Girls who get a little exercised by their daughters' obsession with her.

Their main anxiety seems to be the quantity of fairly grown up 'ishoos' that are dealt with in her books hiding behind deceptively soothing pink and purple sparkly covers. Too much too soon seems to be the accusation.

But I say go back and reread the apparently oh-so-cosy and deliciously middle class Noel Streatfeild you were reading at 9 afresh and you may be surprised.

The impact of having a parent with depression who can't work? see 'The Painted Garden'
The impact of having a parent who's personality has been changed by a serious head injury? see 'Caldicott Place'
The impact of living in a poorly planned housing estate? see 'New Town'
The impact of being a displaced and orphaned refugee arriving in a new country? see 'Ballet Shoes for Anna'

And this is quite aside from the default setting of all her books, of children who need to be more or less entirely self-reliant; who must find their own solutions to their problems whether financial or logistical. Who must learn to make sometimes quite substantial sacrifices to achieve their dreams.

Yes Noel Streatfeild's families poverty may be relative and yes, there is nearly always a scamp of a dog and unlimited cake to support them on their way and yes;  always a happy ending but difficulty, darkness and even tragedy lurk on the peripheries. The childhoods of the 1940s,50s and 60s were apparently just as complicated as the childhoods of today and children have always been fascinated to read about how others negotiate those complications.

'From the moment they saw their village had gone a sort of silent frenzy had come over the children, then, without saying a word, they stumbled and ran all the way to where they thought the little house had been. there they knelt down and dug and dug with their fingers. But though they dug without stopping they could not find any sign of their family- just nothing- nothing at all.
Nor was the place where their own little house had been the only place where the children dug... They dug where the shop had once stood. They dug for the other cottages and the mosque. On they went, dig, dig, dig until their nails were broken and their hands covered in blood. And still they never spoke.'
                                        from 'Ballet Shoes for Anna' 1972

Monday, 19 November 2012

Pinocchio and Cosmic

On Saturday, Eddie and I went to see 'Pinocchio' at the The Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington. I think I've mentioned before what a GREAT place this is; producing some of the most sophisticated children's shows I've seen. It's run on slightly military lines with strict age requirements for each show (shh- Eddie's friends who we went with were '6' for one day only- getting in to a Little Angel show is akin to being served your first pint in a pub) and child reserved seats to ensure that no child's view is blocked by an adult head.

The production was both weird and spectacular; especially the second half which genuinely thrilled me and made me cry. Eddie has been talking about it continuously since. The tickets were a total steal at £12 for the two of us. If you get a chance, do go yourself.

The theatre version of 'Pinocchio' was closer to the original Collodi than Disney. Jimminy cricket fans (if such people can exist) should know that in the book, the annoying bug gets squished against a wall by Pinocchio very early on in the action and he didn't feature at all on stage. We have a heavily abridged and rewritten book version- the Usborne 'young reader'. It's still a strange and unsatisfactory tale. Like many children's 'classics' you spend much of it in a slight state of boggle: But there's no structure! And it doesn't make any sense! And it's all horrible!- whilst your children laugh and slap their thighs with happiness. Understanding it was written as a serial and before any other dedicated children's literature existed it makes more sense but still...

What do I know? Eddie thinks it's all great apparently.

I was struck afresh in the theatre by how suitable a morality tale this is for North London's Tiger Parents. Apparently any kind of fun AT ALL will cause you to be hung or turned into a donkey. It's not very pro learning through play. As for what a good dad must look like; poor Gepetto gives up his last coin for an education for his child and must search to the ends of the earth and the bottom of the ocean for his missing son. It's all love tied up with duty and hard work and self discipline. Very tigery.

For a more nuanced take on father and son relations and running away and an appreciation of just how far children's literature has come THANK GOD, you can't do better than read Frank Cottrell Boyce's 'Cosmic'.

On the side of this blog when I started it, I wrote about how I was looking forward to discovering new writers with my children and boy have we hit the jackpot here. Obviously he has been garnered with awards over the last few years, so for many children's literature enthusiasts this is old hat but me and Bill are just discovering him. I'm reading 'Cosmic' aloud to him at the moment and it's my best evening treat: Funny and profound with a cracking adventure at its heart; we're glued. And a rather better analysis of what it means to be a real dad and a real son than 'Pinocchio'. Liam gets lost in space on the rocket 'Infinite Possibility:

'I was still looking back towards the massive empty universe. But I was talking to my dad and suddenly everything was different. My dad's voice was real. The stars were just...decoration.
"Are you OK? Because if you're not, I'll come and pick you up."
"I'm OK. Anyway it's a bit far."
"Doesn't matter how far it is. I'm your dad. if you want me to pick you up, just say so."'

If only Gepetto had had a sat phone and a taxi.
Lessons for dads
'Cosmic' by Frank Cottrell Boyce, pub.Macmillan isbn 978-0-330-44086-8
'Pinocchio' by Carlo Collodi, illustrated by Mauro Evangelista, pub. Usborne isbn 978-0-7460-6332-3

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Snow Bear

I'd like to write a post about my frustrations with the gender stereotyping in both content but more particularly packaging that dominates the young reader market of first chapter books. I'd like to, but it would be a pointless activity because 'Mrs H.' has already done it brilliantly here. Don't miss scrolling though the comments either and following the link to Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow's pragmatic publishing response.

It's pretty depressing to read that retail buyers are actively seeking out pink titles even in picture books now. Depressing particularly because, at the moment, it does seem to be the simple chapter book market that's the worst offender- but are they just the trailblazers for a new wave of gender-dividing-to-come for picture books and older readers too?

In that early chapter book market, series dominate to hook kids into the reading habit. Gender dividing operates most obviously at a subject matter level: Girls get the princesses and the ponies and boys get the fighting and the farts, but more insidiously I think gender  dividing also happens too often in the way those subjects are treated. Boys seem to get the lion's share of funny action, girls get more emotional journey; not very fair on either.

Whilst musing on these things through my letterbox plopped, 'The Snow Bear' by Holly Webb. It being a rainy sort of afternoon and me having a nice headcold brewing I settled down to read it. It's a lovely Christmassy tale of a girl who builds a snow polar bear and igloo with her grandfather and then goes on a magical adventure to help a real lost cub and meet a real Inuit family. Expecting (from the prolific output of its author) something rather formulaic and sentimental, I'll admit I was surprised by its depth and quality. For a short and simple book designed for young readers, there are tricksy themes of dealing with separation and change handled lightly as well as some sound insights into another culture. Traditional life in the Arctic tundra is nicely evoked.

(sidenote to say it rather reminded me of Lucy Fitch Perkin's classic 'The Eskimo Twins' and I've just discovered that all the Twins books are free to kindle now. oooo. an evening of distraction awaits...)

I started reading 'The Snow Bear' to Bill this weekend and, in front of the fire after a day of go-karting down wet muddy hills, it was a good snuggly choice appreciated by us both. I have to say though, if I didn't read it to him I doubt he'd have picked it up to read to himself. Whilst its soft silvery cover is not in-your-face girly, when I showed it to him he furrowed his brow in slight distrust. "Is that for me?" He's learnt the rules. sigh

Browsing around Holly Webb's (nicely designed and informative) website it's clear that her main fanbase is girls and that her books, to a greater or lesser extent are written, marketed and packaged with girl-appeal tuned to max. I understand that's how you may get most copies sold but it makes me  sad. Caring for animals (or caring fullstop) is not an exclusively girl-trait after all. And a good book for one is a good book for all...
'The Snow Bear' by Holly Webb, published by Stripes isbn 978-1-84715-255-8

Disclosure. We received our copy by kindness of the publisher. Our opinions are our own.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

RHCBA Blog Tour: Jonathan Meres

And so the Red House Children's Book Award Blog Tour Charabanc has rolled up at our door at last! Welcome honoured guests and read on to meet the wonderful Jonathan Meres and hear all about his shortlisted book; 'The World of Norm: May Contain Nuts'

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked – apart from ‘Sorry, what did you say your name was?’ and ‘Is this your car, sir?’ is ‘What’s The World of Norm about?’  To which I generally reply, ‘It’s about £5.99.’  Once the laughter has subsided – and on a good day this can quite literally take anything from between one and three seconds - I usually explain that it’s about a boy called Norm.  (The clue’s in the title, folks.)  So, essentially The World of Norm is about Norm’s world.  But now for the clever bit.  Well I think it’s clever anyway.  You see, apart from Norm being an abbreviation of Norman, it’s also an abbreviation of normal.  So we’ve got the world of Norm, as in Norm – but also as in ‘the norm.’  Which is dead handy because the world of Norm is normal.  Or at least relatively normal.  There’s nothing in the three books so far that couldn’t actually happen.  OK – so some of the stuff might not happen.  But the point is it could happen.  Consequently there are no vampires, or wizards in The World of Norm.  Not that there’s anything wrong with vampires or wizards (he adds hastily) but basically we’re talking real life here.  Ever so slightly exaggerated for comedy purposes.  But really not that much.  These are (hopefully) recognisable domestic situations and scenarios that readers can actually relate to.  Like being unfairly blamed for stuff your younger siblings have done for instance.  Like constantly craving the latest phone or gadget – but more crucially, never having the money to buy it.  Like best friends.  Like perfect cousins.  Like everything being just so unfair.  Like stuff, basically.  Just lots and lots of stuff.  Any questions so far?  Excellent.  In that case I can now let you into a little secret.  That thing about ‘the norm’ I just told you?  Complete coincidence.  OK, a very happy coincidence.  A very handy coincidence.  But a coincidence nevertheless.  We’d already settled on the title of the series before I even realised.  I say we.  That’s me and my editor.  Or my editor and I.  Whatever.  Anyway it had already been decided.  Norm wasn’t even originally going to be called Norm – he was going to be called Norman.  And the whole point of having a central character called Norman was so that if the book ever did get published – and it was by no means certain that it would  – and the book went on to become part of a series – the series could be called….wait for it….The Chronicles of Norman.  Having said that, it was always my intention for Norm’s world to be rooted firmly in reality and to be, for want of a better word, ‘normal.’  There never were going to be any dragons.  Norm was never going to invent a machine and travel back in time.  Frankly, in the unlikely event that he ever did, knowing Norm’s luck he’d only travel back in time ten minutes.  And if he ever walked into a wardrobe in search of a faraway, magical land?  He’d probably end up in IKEA.  So it tickles me whenever a reviewer or interviewer picks up on the title thing without me explaining it first.  But I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.
'The World of Norm: May Contain Nuts' by Jonathan Meres has been shortlisted in the Younger Readers category of the Red house Children's Book Award 2013. The Red House Children's Book Award is the ONLY national children's book award entirely voted for by children. It is owned and coordinated by the Federation of Children's Book Groups and sponsored by Red House.

Yay! Go Norm!

Should you have failed to set your alarm clock, ring your day planner, mark your diary or programme your iphone, blackberry or other electronic communication device, here are the other Blog-Hop participants where you can hear from all the other shortlisted authors.

The Book Sniffer @maybeswabey
5minutespeace @LucyRoseT

Book Reviews for Mums  @Bookreviewsmum  

Read it Daddy!  @Readitdaddy 

Babbleabout @babbleaboutbks 

Child-Led Chaos @ChildLedChaos

Library Mice @librarymice 

Playing by the Book @playbythebook 

Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books @Enchantedbooks

Friday, 2 November 2012

Hunger Games and Flambards diversions

These are the kind of crazy thoughts that happen to you when you spend 10 days locked in the Wood Green Crown Court waiting room; a place that might, Quite Literally, be the real limbo.

So, back in the spring, whilst taking a donkey through the foothills of Spain, I caught up with that popular-amongst-the-young-people trilogy of books; 'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins.
There is a phrase in our family parlance to convey lukewarm praise which originally relates I think, to a response my father once gave to a mousse-based pudding my mother presented him with early in their marriage: "It slips down" (he was more of a steamed suet enthusiast). That phrase pretty neatly sums up my Hunger Games reading experience - I swallowed them whole happily but with almost no chewing or digestion required. Pulpy, initially enjoyable but with a rather nasty aftertaste as the violence and bleakness escalated through the series.

A couple of weeks afterwards I happened to get involved in a Twitter conversation about them and what age they were suitable for. When twitter chum @Elephantthai (who is, by the by, an extremely funny and gifted  poet- please go and visit her website here and then offer her a publishing deal) mentioned that her 10 year old was reading them I had a bit of internal shudder and found myself a lone voice saying that I thought that she shouldn't be. Which in turn led me to examine my beliefs about censorship and how that works and realise I was being a bit of an idiot. Which was in turn good news for Eddie and his desire to watch certificate 12 superhero movies...

And since that conversation I've discovered plenty of friends' 10 year olds are also gobbling these books up, which makes me feel very, very old and rather square.

For what was I reading when I was 10? Not violent, dystopian fantasy but pony stories of the sort I described here, interspersed with a bit of Antonia Forrest, Lorna Hill and Joan Aiken.
 Judy Blume, and her sanitary towel belts and bust improvement schemes was as risque as I got.

One of my other favourites, which even then I certainly recognised as a cut above the Pullein Thompson sisters and their ilk, was K.M. Peyton. Thanks to my wonderful discovery of all-titles-pony at Jane Badger books I recently snapped up her 'Fly-by-Night' pair and classic 'Flambards' trilogy at knock down price. And it was the latter that I re-read under the flickering strip lights of the waiting-room-to-Hell in Wood Green last week.

So here's my thesis, you know what?

They're actually, whisper it, not that different from 'The Hunger Games'

Both revolve around a feisty and brave heroine with superior outdoor skills forced into pragmatic decisions at a time of war. Both involve difficult romantic choices. Both have a succession of main characters being maimed and/or killed; experiences which teach their protagonists the art of emotional protection. Both have a redemptive child figure who is put in mortal danger.

I could expand the parallels but it might all get a bit too nerdy.

Anyway my main revelation was how much darker Flambards was than I remembered it. In my head it was mostly love and planes and ponies whereas in fact it's a lot more fear and death and land management...

You read differently when you're 10 to when you're 41 and ultimately that provides more reassurance to me that censorship is unnecessary. The 10 year old 'Hunger Games' fans will find a completely different story to the one I found; the one that they are ready to hear.

Having said that I think they'd find K. M. Peyton provides a vastly superior read...

And anyone who would like to enter into my madness and discuss the ins and outs of how Christina would get Sweetbriar from the Cornucopia in time or how Katniss might react to being asked to loop the loop knows where to find me.