classics

Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler

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It was with some trepidation that I started reading Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler. It’s always hard to emulate a classic at the same time as rewriting it – you’re bound to deviate from the original in some way, change something that was inherently attractive about the original. But I was more than pleasantly surprised reading. The clue is in the title – rather than stick to the original point of view (Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty from the horse’s point of view), Kuenzler has taken the vantage point of Josie, an aspiring groom, who takes a spirited black colt under her wing. It’s a bold and daring retelling – retaining the original plot but highlighting a minor-ish character and plunging him/her into the role of protagonist.

Yes, him/her was deliberate. Kuenzler purposely plays with gender in her re-telling, giving Josie a rather interesting Shakespearean-esque role, dressing as a boy to disguise her womanhood, because she has run away from home. This also lets Kuenzler bring in some excellent nuances into the story, such as dealing beautifully gently with Josie’s approaching puberty, (even though set in its original historical world, Kuenzler’s contemporary writing style and ability to write about such issues lends it modernity).

The only deviation from the original plot is when Josie becomes separated from Black Beauty. At this point it’s hard for Kuenzler to stick to the original, as she has to imagine what would have happened to Josie in the interim, and fill in Black Beauty’s progress in the story in less detail.

But overall, Kuenzler remains true to the original by keeping the focus firmly on horses, with details about horse care and riding, and most importantly by affording the reader empathy with the horses – this book is still very much about treatment of animals (and treatment of those less fortunate in society, or lower down on the class rungs, as well as gender equality). The reader still comes away with a deep love and affection for Black Beauty, and with tears in the eyes. A great retelling. I’m lucky enough to be able to gift you an extract – the first two chapters are below. If you like, then you can purchase the book here. Look out for the wonderfully presented hardback with silver foiling – a perfect gift.

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Classic Literature’s Influence over Modern Novels – a guest post by Emma Carroll

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This week on MinervaReads, two blog posts that take a look at contemporary fiction that mirrors, borrows from, or is inspired by, classic literature. Today, contemporary children’s author, Emma Carroll talks about recent examples of this, following on from the publication this month of her Frankenstein inspired story, Strange Star. To read MinervaReads’ review of Strange Star, click here

Having recently had published a story with its roots in ’Frankenstein’, my view on this subject doesn’t need much explanation. Yes, Strange Star is a nod in the direction of Mary Shelley and her gothic masterpiece- maybe it’s more than a nod (Badges? Banners? I ‘Heart’ Mary t-shirts?). I’m proud to join a long line of writers who’ve been influenced by classics from the past.

Reinventing classics is a popular, tried- and tested- genre in adult fiction. From the subtle ‘echo’ of Victorian sensation novels in books such as Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox, to direct ‘spin-offs’ such as Nelly Dean by Alison Case (Wuthering Heights), Jo Baker’s Longbourn (Pride and Prejudice), Mrs De Winter by Susan Hill (Rebecca) and the classic in its own right Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jane Eyre). There are far too many to list here: suffice to say I’ve a soft spot for a good re-invention.

With regard to sequels/prequels/spin-offs certain classics seem to attract more attention. Often it’s because they’re very well known: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, Pride and Prejudice. Or, rather ambiguous: Rebecca, Wuthering Heights. Or, feature minor characters whose stories are bursting to be told: Lydia Bennett, Bertha Mason, Hindley Earnshaw. I had experience of this myself last year when writing a short educational version of Wuthering Heights for Collins. They requested it be from Heathcliff’s perspective: given his almost psychopathic tendencies in the original, making him age-appropriate was a challenge. I had to give him a motivation. Bronte’s gaps in the story were what triggered my own.

Which brings me on to the influence of classics in children’s literature. Many wonderful, hugely popular writers – Robin Stevens, Katherine Rundell, Katherine Woodfine – pay homage to the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and Eva Ibbotson in their work. And I can’t go any further without mentioning the spectacular Five Children On the Western Front by Kate Saunders, which is a direct sequel to Five Children and It, and executed with incredible skill.

More recently we’ve had Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb, my particular favourite, the up and coming  Lydia- the Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice by Natasha Farrant, and yes, my own Strange Star. I speak for myself here, but for me, writing something so directly linked to a classic was a way of exploring my relationship with that book. Frankenstein featured heavily in my teaching years: writing Strange Star helped me move on from that time in my life. The teacher in me still exists: I hope by reading something accessible, young people will go on to seek out the classics, or at the very least be aware of their cultural significance.

I’d say all of my books owe something to the classics. It’s not deliberate. Over the years I’ve read many, many books and in that time developed tastes, preferences, interests that have shaped who I am as a writer. You are what you read. Cut me open and you’d probably find a black Penguin Classics spine running through me.

With huge thanks to Emma Carroll, one of our most essential and talented contemporary children’s writers. For MinervaReads review of Strange Star, click here. To buy Emma’s latest book Strange Star, please click here.          

 

Shakespeare 400

As you will know by now, 2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare died. It’s quite difficult to review Shakespeare books for children, as most adults come to the plays with at least a gist of the plot line, and also with a preconceived notion of who Shakespeare was and the influence he wields over our inherited culture, whereas children are approaching him afresh. As someone who studied Shakespeare at university, it’s hard to separate existing knowledge from the presentation of Shakespeare in children’s stories, but seeing as it is a big Shakespeare year, I thought I’d reach out to children’s publishers and see what they are producing for the commemoration. And this is what I found.

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To Wee or Not to Wee! By Pamela Butchart and Thomas Flintham

Pamela Butchart is a favourite children’s comic author, and she has tackled Shakespeare with aplomb. After taking part in the BBC School Radio Shakespeare Retold project, she has tried her hand at retelling four of the best known Shakespeare plays in this little collection: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.

Each story starts by introducing the role call of characters, as one would at the start of a play, but then each story reverts to prose. The stories are told by a contemporary child, Izzy, who is something of an expert on the stories, and likes to show off how things that happen in her life can be related to Shakespeare plays.

For example, her friend Zach is totally indecisive, and she compares this to Hamlet – and proceeds to tell her friends the story. Likewise, a feud between her mother and her friend’s mother over invitations to a party is relatable to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Sort of.

It’s completely tongue in cheek, and made me snort out loud, not only in the tenuous connections between Izzy’s life and Shakespeare, but also in her retellings. For example Ophelia is fed up that Hamlet doesn’t want to marry her, not only because he’s mean to her, but also because her wedding dress is non-refundable.

Izzy explains how the Capulets and Montagues fell out over a hoover. Izzy thinks Macbeth should have de-stressed a little by doing a Sudoku instead of burning Macduff’s house down to the ground and killing all his family. Butchart brilliantly conveys the excitement, madcapness, blood, gore and love twists in her stories, but also adds a brilliantly modern childlike prose style to capture emotions.

Some fabulous illustrations accompany the text – as well as much of the text being in huge capitals or squiggles to convey when people are POISONED, or MURDERED or IN LOVE.

They are funny, thrilling and funny again. Never before has the retelling of Hamlet made me laugh so much. And of course there’s always Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has a man called Bottom in it. Perfect for children of all ages – even the grown up kind. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

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The Boy and the Globe by Tony Bradman, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones

With precision and acute attention to detail, master storyteller Tony Bradman illuminates the time of Shakespeare with a brilliant little story about Toby, a young orphan on the streets of London during the time of Shakespeare.

Sent by a Fagin type ringmaster called Moll Cut-Purse, Toby tries his criminal luck pickpocketing at the Globe. But he stumbles across a certain famous playwright, who needs Toby’s help in more ways than one. Before long, Toby is staking out rival players at the Rose theatre, helping Will with sticky plot points, and even acting in a play himself.

The story whizzes along in a jaunty and happy style. The young Toby is peppy and interesting and perks up the character of Shakespeare, who is portrayed as slightly jaded and in need of some youthful spark. Bradman has set his story towards the end of Shakespeare’s London playwriting career, so that his reputation already preceded him.

The story is fun in itself, but the huge amount of historical detail simply dropped into the story means that the reader comes away with a good picture of how life was in Shakespeare’s time. Added to this, are the production touches given to the book itself – from the endpapers (covered in Yorick skulls) to the fake splodges of ink on the pages, which lend themselves to the idea of the book being written by quill, and the contents – laid out like the beginning of Shakespeare plays, complete with the cast, the time and the place. Tom Morgan-Jones has inked his own unique illustrations, beautifully illuminating scenes and emotions.

The story manages to explain the idea behind The Tempest, the role of the players, the rival theatres, and Shakespeare himself, all in short chapters and encapsulated within a ‘ducking and diving’ action story.

The activities at the end of the book add further colour, with street scenes and Shakespearean insults. And it’s dyslexia-friendly too. Read this and you certainly won’t have “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” You can purchase it here.

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Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk by Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley

A phenomenal book, with wise words and witty illustrations, drawing attention to which words Shakespeare created and brought into common usage – so much of our language today. It cleverly describes, in a few well-chosen words, what it was like in Shakespeare’s time – from the streets of London to inside the Globe, and backstage. Each double page spread shows a hugely colourful illustration packed with people and historical detail – almost a Shakespeare Where’s Wally.

Jane Sutcliffe summarises what’s happening in the scene, using words and phrases that are now in general usage thanks to Shakespeare – either words he invented himself, or words that he simply brought into common usage. A box-off at the side explains the phrases, any changes in meaning, and which play they come from.

It’s an ingenious concept, superbly executed – I could have read pages more. The illustrations are worth poring over. The packed London scenes include the stocks, pickpockets, sedan chairs, and different classes of people in the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day. John Shelley shows us old-school bridges with houses and buildings stretching across the Thames, as well as the first printers – churning out leaflets to advertise Shakespeare’s new plays.

The scenes in the Globe portray different plays, as well as a cross-section of backstage, which is brilliantly done – a trapdoor, a costume room etc. The audience too is amazingly detailed – you can see whether the audience is shocked by the tragedy, roused by the history, and amused by the comedy. There’s even a fascinating explanation of the theatrical phrase ‘box office’.

The text is easy to read, and well-written – and hugely enjoyable, as is the postscript from Jane at the end, which winningly describes the relevance of Shakespeare. He made his audiences feel – and this book too makes the reader feel – it’s inspirational and makes you want to delve further into Shakespeare. Standing ovation all round (except of course, most of them were already standing at The Globe!) Get this one here.

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Short Sharp Shakespeare Stories: Romeo and Juliet retold by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones

It’d be remiss of me not to include a series of Shakespeare books that retell each play singly, so that readers getting to grips with Shakespeare can pick and choose which play they want to learn about. These Short Sharp Shakespeare books really break down each play, and as above, they are illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones, who manages to inject each illustration with wit, and personality.

After introducing the gist of the story and the who’s who with a strangely complicated graphic, the story is told in prosaic chapters with contemporary language, although with the authentic elements left in, such as duels, swords, candles and silver platters. Every so often an illustration features a speech bubble with the original language, and this is extrapolated at the bottom of the page to explain difficult words and phrases.

The text reads with enough wit and pace and fun to grip the reader:

“…he suddenly saw the most enchanting, heart-stoppingly pretty girl he had ever laid eyes on. It was not Rosaline. Rosaline was forgotten at once.”

The pages at the back provide extra tidbits for project work, including explanations of the difference between prose, dialogue and stage directions – writing as a play as opposed to a novel, breaks down the play into acts, gives some context to Shakespeare and the stage, as well as introducing the main themes within the play. A really perfect guide for readers being introduced to the plays, either before studying the original, or before viewing on stage. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

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Usborne Shakespeare Sticker Book, illustrated by Paul Nicholls and written by Rob Lloyd Jones

This is a completely different way to approach Shakespeare of course, but leads with factual elements, overseen by an expert from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so is reliable information. The first few pages set the scene by describing the idea of ‘players’ to perform plays, and go on to discuss life in London at the time, and the Globe playhouse – bringing history to life with intricate details. Each spread has a small amount of text and a large backdrop and then it’s up to the reader to drop in the stickers where they like.

This is where the fun begins. The stickers are light-hearted and hilarious – from the overly dramatic expressions of the players to the spectator who is clearly bored and asleep. There is a lovely selection of rats to place in the scenes of London life, and some brilliant sword-fighting stickers for the scenes at The Globe. The last few spreads are dedicated to a few select plays, including The Tempest, Midsummer, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Illustrator Paul Nicholls has gone to town on the witches for Macbeth, the fish in The Tempest, and fairy wings for Midsummer. Hilarious and captivating. I can’t wait to start sticking. Especially the numerous angry Romans with blood-dripping daggers in Julius Caesar. Try it here.

It’s Shakespeare Saturday this weekend, 23 April. See here for participating bookshops, and grab a Shakespeare Saturday tote bag as part of Books Are My Bag campaign.

First Witches

What is the appeal of witches for young readers? When I started the idea for this particular blogpost, the titles of ‘witchy’ series of books for little ones kept spilling off my tongue – there are so many. And more are being produced. The main hook of featuring witches in children’s literature is of course magic – witches can wave a wand and solve a dilemma – or in a well-used twist – use their wand badly and create a bigger problem.

Unlike fairies, witches appeal because they are human. They don’t have wings – they don’t have to occupy a different world (although some do). They are also edgier than most fairies – witches can have a mean streak whereas most fairies tend to be good (other than Tinkerbell from Peter Pan).

Witches are also usually accompanied by an animal – in fact looking at my list below, they are all in a close relationship with a ‘pet’, or animal friend, and this feature is a well-used device in children’s literature. So, where to start…..

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Hubble Bubble: The Messy Monkey Business by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger
This series was first published in 2011 as picture books, but then quickly morphed into a series of young fiction titles for newly independent readers. There are three picture books for aged 3+ years with rhyming text, and then a series for 6+ years, each containing three stories. New titles published last year were The Wacky Winter Wonderland and The Messy Monkey Business. Delightfully enticing covers draw the reader into the story, with two-tone illustrations inside. The stories are about Pandora, an ordinary girl, whose grandmother happens to be a witch – she’s not alone in this, in Messy Monkey Business the third story reveals that many of the children also have grandmothers with witchy powers.

Messy Monkey Business features three stories including a school trip to the zoo, a babysitting disaster, and a camping trip. With ‘trouble’ and ‘chaos’ in the titles, it’s not long before Pandora’s Granny’s magic goes wrong, but in each story she does her very best to rectify the situation. She certainly means well. The stories zing with quick dialogue, and some lovely phrases:

“the children dived into the leaves like five excited little hedgehogs.”

The zoo adventure contains all the necessary elements – smells, mess, escaping creatures and a sea lion show – but all with a touch of magic in both text and illustration.

In all the Hubble Bubble books the short stories bounce along, there’s an element of ‘fairy godmother’ about Granny – she tries to be helpful by using her magic, but her results often lead Pandora and her friends astray. With wonderful names, such as Mr Bibble the schoolteacher, and Cobweb the cat, there’s plenty for a young reader to discover. The stand-out factor about the Hubble Bubble books though is the warmth that exudes from them. Despite mishaps and mayhem, the characters are loveable – the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter delightful, the humour spritely and the text pitched perfectly – some lovely expressions and adjectives, but all easy enough for first readers. You can purchase Hubble Bubble The Messy Monkey Business here.

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The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
This series is still an absolute favourite with all – from old to young. The books remain fresh and lively. They tell the adventures of Mildred Hubble and her best friend Maud at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. It’s hard to believe that the series is over 40 years old…but when re-reading you can see Jill Murphy’s original witty inventions – lessons on flying a broomstick, potions classes, creepy corridors and invisibility spells.

Jill Murphy originally pitched Mildred as a fairy, unfortunately attending the wrong school – but then changed her to a witch who’s just not very capable. From her tabby cat instead of a black one, to her long enmity with Ethel Hallow, and her even stronger friendship with Maud, this is a school story to treasure. Names are used cunningly here too – who can forget Miss Hardbroom – a precursor to Minerva McGonagall I should think. The black and white illustrations depict the greyness of the school as well as the hilarious friendship between short round Maud and long tall Mildred. Jill Murphy is both author and illustrator. Meet Mildred Hubble here.

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Titchy Witch by Rose Impey, illustrated by Katharine McEwen
Perhaps our least famous witch here, Titchy Witch inhabits a world in which only her family are witches – her classmates at school vary from goblins to princesses, and her teacher is an ogre. She is also looked after by a particularly grumpy Cat-a-Bogus, a sort of au-pair/nanny. Full colour illustrations throughout add to the charm of this compelling world. Titchy Witch is different from the other witches, in that she is only seven, and acts as such. She finds some witchy things hard, has difficulty keeping her temper, and is very mischevious. The text is suitable for first independent readers and these children will recognise themselves in Titchy Witch.

Titchy Witch and the Frog Fiasco is typical of the stories. When Gobby-goblin at school pokes Titchy one too many times, she has her revenge by putting a spell on him. The teacher catches her and Titchy is blamed, and decides she no longer wants to go to school. Cat-a-Bogus shows her why she should attend when it turns out she cannot read or practise magic perfectly just yet. There is an adorable twist at the end, only understood by studying the illustration. You can conjure Titchy by purchasing here.

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Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul
Another aging witch, Winnie is more than 25 years old. She has a beloved black cat, the prickly Wilbur. The wonderfulness of Winnie is the amount of colour Korky Paul throws at the books, in fact our standout title is the original story in which Winnie colours her world. There are some beautifully unique traits to Winnie – she has a crooked hat because Paul found that drawing it straight didn’t always fit on the page, she is not the most attractive witch to look at, and yet her personality is adorable. Wilbur’s personality is as acutely drawn as any human’s – his laziness, his addiction to a certain level of comfort, his weariness with Winnie’s adventures. The attention to detail is present in both the meticulously drawn illustrations, as well as the scope of the adventures. Each book is very different – from Winnie’s trip to the seaside, to her birthday celebrations. There is much to admire in each, and much to look at. Winnie also seamlessly moves with the times – see for example Winnie’s New Computer.

Like Hubble Bubble, there are both picture books and young readers, so that the books grow with the child. No library is complete without Winnie on a shelf somewhere. Wave your wand here.

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Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
Another 1970’s invention and catering for the youngest readers out of the books featured, I couldn’t write a blogpost about witches and not include my favourite. It is the simplicity of the words and pictures that is Meg and Mog’s unique selling point. The repetition, the sound effects and the rhythm make this a treat to read-aloud. The sentence describing Meg going downstairs perfectly sums up the clomping noise she makes:
“She went down the stairs to cook breakfast.”
as each word of text is positioned underneath each stair, enticing the reader to pronounce the sentence in a particular way. The drawings are iconic – each of the five witches portrayed almost as stick figurines, and yet all distinguishable by their different hair squiggles and noses. The colours are bright and bold, no white spaces in this preschool colour block delight. But the best thing about the original book is that it doesn’t conclude neatly. When Meg changes the witches into mice, she leaves them like that until the following Halloween – there is no happy ending. Edgy and mischievous. Just how witches should be. You can purchase Meg and Mog here.

Look out for my forthcoming blog on witches for slightly older children…

 

 

 

Gulliver retold by Mary Webb, illustrated by Lauren O’Neill

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There are so many versions of the classics tales out there, that it can be very difficult and confusing to pick the right one for your child. As a purist I always like to reach for the original, but for something like Gulliver’s Travels although the story can work for a much younger age group, the original text is more suited to young adults and older.

The poet John Gay wrote to Swift that “it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.” Of course the word Lilliputian even entered the dictionary, but for those who wish to read it firstly as a simple story with simplified satire, an easier version is required, one without Swift’s wordiness.

Mary Webb has retold two of Gulliver’s adventures – his time with the Lilliputians in which he is perceived as a giant, and his time in Brobdingnag where the people are giants compared to him. Mary retains much of the original humour and satire, Gulliver’s remarks on the futility of war – when the Lilliputians fight their neighbours over the correct way to crack an egg, and keeps in much of Gulliver’s disgust at the way humans behave – especially when they are magnified to the size of giants.

It’s always a pleasure for an author to depict the world seen from a different point of view – in this case either as someone very small, or someone very big. Astute observations can be made about the world when it’s viewed at a distance and from a different perspective. Webb has kept in as much as possible – from Gulliver’s perspective of power to his toileting habits.

Lauren O’Neill’s illustrations fit the story very well. A slightly muted grey/blue tinge holds sway over every page, and bold reds illuminate specific features such as flags, sails, capes and arrow tips. There is a good amount of detail, and fabulous drawings of old-fashioned clothes and sail boats, which give clues to the reader as to when the book was written.

The very small introduction to Swift’s book on the contents page is particularly excellent. It describes in the simplest and most concise language what Swift was trying to achieve, and what lessons can be extrapolated from the tales.

This is a lovely edition that can be enjoyed shared with a parent, or read alone. The red ribbon to mark page position is a well-spent printing cost, and makes the book a good gift option. Buy here from Waterstones.

Atticus Finch Belongs to Me

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I would imagine there has been more written in the past week about Harper Lee than she herself has written. Apparently, just published Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is a ‘first draft’ of To Kill a Mockingbird – an unedited manuscript that was initially rejected for publication in its original format and then transformed (in conjunction with an editor) into To Kill a Mockingbird. This, and the reception of the book have raised some intriguing points. Firstly, whereas Mockingbird can be read as one of the pre-emptive Young Adult novels, Go Set a Watchman is more adult in tone. That’s such a positive message – that an editor chose to work with an author to change a novel intended for the mainstream adult audience to one told from a child’s point of view – and one that has become a studied text for teenagers world over. Secondly, many reviewers have reacted to the perceived racism of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, a character whose reputation had, from Mockingbird, been whiter than white. (Excuse the pun).

Hadley Freeman wrote an interesting article in The Guardian this week, most of which I agree with, about the reviews of Go Set a Watchman. And yet, at the end, she rails against the ‘absurdly immature attitude’ that Lee’s books are hers, not ours. But this is where I disagree with Hadley. Once the writer has published their text, it does become the reader’s, not the writer’s. That is the beauty of literature, poetry, all art set down and shown to someone else. It’s a subjective thing – I see what I see in the text, which is totally different to that which another person sees. My Atticus is different from Hadley’s, each in turn different from Harper Lee’s. That is why so many film adaptations of books are so disappointing, so argued with. Leonardo DiCaprio is not, and can never rival the Gatsby in my head. In fact this is where the public consciousness of Atticus Finch may have been slightly altered – by the cultural influence of Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in the film.

Each reader brings their own life experiences, memories, knowledge to each individual text. For every book that a reader reads, they go beyond the text on the page – they create an image out of the textual framework given to them. In the simplest example of this, Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels can be read as hard-hitting political satire – or simply great children’s adventure stories. Neither interpretation is diminished by not understanding the other, it’s just a different way of reading and enjoying the text. Our collective image of pirates is borne out of Stevenson’s portrait of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, but I think if you went back to the original text you’d see that his portrait is much more ferocious and less comedic than you’d expect. Pirates in children’s literature now are comical, even witless, figures, although hugely likeable (for the most part), with stereotypical wooden legs, parrots on their shoulders, and a penchant for rum. In Treasure Island, Long John Silver is menacing, duplicitous, and quick-thinking. He’s the only person Flint has ever truly been afraid of. He is one of the darkest and most courageous characters in children’s literature. Likewise our collective consciousness of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell is quite different from the book. Whereas the Tinkerbell in our collective consciousness is a lovely, mischievous character flittering round the room like a light, in the original text she manipulates the Lost Boys to shoot Wendy. She’s jealous, and conniving, and pretty unpleasant. Even Peter Pan is quite vicious in intent and character in JM Barrie’s story. With a straightforward story, such as Mockingbird, the reason it has lived on as a classic in our schools and consciousness is that it can be argued over and interpreted in different ways. Could you read it simply as a coming-of-age story with Scout’s inherent tongue-in-cheek humour, or as a black and white discussion of morality and race, or both? If there was no interpretation, then regurgitating the Letts’ Study Aids would ensure that every student got an A* on their Mockingbird exam.

Atticus existed in many different guises in Harper Lee’s imagination – morphing as she changed her text, re-writing, re-drafting and re-editing – as all writers do. Some writers speak of characters dictating the book to them, rather than the other way around – imagination is a complicated thing. So I’m not upset that Atticus becomes more ambiguous in Go Set a Watchman, less a perfect model of reason and courage, of truth and fairness, than he was in Mockingbird. Characters change in an author’s head all the time, and can be moulded to fit a story or plot too, or even killed off in the first chapter! But now that both versions are with the reader, we still own Atticus. We decide which version we want, how we read the text, how we reconcile the changes in the dynamic that have been presented to us, how we bring our own interpretation to it. Our view may get adjusted by a new text from the author – our Harry Potter of The Philosopher’s Stone is not exactly the same as our Harry Potter of the Deathly Hallows, but we, as readers, just continue to adjust each version presented to us to the one we have in our heads – adding in the new experiences, new adventures. We do it with people we know in real life all the time. After all a book is like a person – you have to climb into the text and feel it before you really understand it. “First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus to Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird.

You can read Hadley Freeman’s article on Go Set a Watchman here 

You have probably already bought Go Set a Watchman, and read To Kill a Mockingbird at school, but if you haven’t, then you can buy them here.

Why I’m Glad to be Reading Pollyanna

Pollyanna

I’ve been reading classic children’s literature to my children. We’ve done Peter Pan, which was surprisingly hard to read aloud and made me realise that my opinions of Peter and Tinkerbell had been distorted by saccharine cartoons – they are both vile characters in the book. We read Treasure Island, which was fun but intensely male and far more literary than I had remembered. Black Beauty was a triumph, as was The Railway Children, although I’d give full credit to any parent reading it aloud to their children who is stoical enough not to have to stop and mop their own tears to stumble through the ending. Alice in Wonderland remains crazily poetic at every reading – although the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party always takes too long in coming and never lasts long enough.

But now it’s Pollyanna. I retained fond memories of Pollyanna – mainly remembering the letters it contained at the end, and the glass prisms which hung from her windows. But re-reading it this past month has made me inhale sharply at its insight, wit, writing style, characterisation, as well as the effortlessness with which EH Porter has written a simple story that is so easy to read aloud, and continues to give so much joy.

There’s certainly literary depth to her simple story. She highlights her characters with ease and wit – Aunt Polly’s tightly coiffured hair is indicative of her general demeanour. In fact Porter’s characterisation is exemplary, she lays out the different characters so well that when reading aloud it is effortless to imbue them with different voices, as Charles Dickens and then TS Eliot said ‘He do the police in different voices’. Porter layers her plot with imagery and style – images of crutches are prevalent a long time before Pollyanna has her accident that leaves her temporarily paralysed, and she also sets a scene well, conveying the small-town New England scenery of the early 1900s with her nuances of language in how she portrays Nancy and Tom, the servants. Written as an omniscient narrator, the reader is a party to Pollyanna’s naivety as well as her optimism, and also the gradual changes she unwittingly wreaks on all those around her.

Despite being published as long ago as 1913, elements of the book charm a modern day audience, and I would argue, it holds messages that are as important as ever. EH Porter portrayed the importance of a child in the adults’ lives in the book: Pollyanna manages to emotionally heal and better the lives of those around her, mainly by being an unwittingly positive and cheery child – but also by being listened to. Only last weekend Matthew Parris wrote in The Times about how the proportion of children in the population of the UK is now the smallest in history, and we need to sit up and listen to the magic of childhood, and not be treating children as just smaller adults.

For all its slight mocking tones of Miss Polly in the book, Pollyanna’s legal guardian, Pollyanna does hark back to a time when moral ideas of duty and charity were an integral part of society. But mainly, there’s the message of gratefulness. Pollyanna plays the ‘glad game’. She tries to find the goodness in things rather than the negative side, originating in the Christmas when she received a pair of crutches rather than the doll for which she had been hoping.

Pollyannaism has been much distorted since the original publication – often alluding to Pollyanna’s seemingly blind optimism in the face of all that befalls her, and her extreme naivety in simply going for the best possible outlook – she tells Tom, the gardener, that he should be glad his arthritis stoops him over, as he is therefore nearer the weeds he must pull up. However, this is a callous example of her ‘glad game’, and not really where it shines. In this example it feeds into extreme ideas of Pollyannaism as being inappropriate and offensive – after all we can’t go round with permanent smiles on our faces, sometimes we need to face a grief head on.

EH Porter even said that in her lifetime, the principle of the ‘glad game’ had been distorted, and that it wasn’t about smiling through all evils: “I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought it far better to ‘greet the unknown with a cheer.’” In fact, what makes Pollyanna resonate for my children and our generation is that it’s simply a way of being grateful for what you have – and for looking for a way of dealing with dark periods. The book itself isn’t preachy, merely sunshiny – it provokes thought about what we can be grateful for, and how we can seek a path out of the darkness. In the text Pollyanna isn’t blindly happy and optimistic – she does grieve for her father and is struck by sadness over his death. She merely uses optimism as a tool to keep going, a skill of determination and grit – in the same way as she deals with her temporary paralysis at the end – she is the ultimate precursor to ‘positive thinking’.

For all that we had a good laugh at Pollyanna whilst reading it – her incessant banging of doors still resonates with today’s children… and despite the tricky vocabulary for today’s eight year olds, the book flows so well that you skate over the difficult words – they are picked up by osmosis as they fit so well into the context – we found Pollyanna to be one of the most enjoyable classics to revisit.

And if I thought struggling through ‘my daddy, oh my daddy’ at the end of the Railway Children was hard, I could barely read past chapter 23 of Pollyanna because of my foreknowledge of what was to come.  It took an immense degree of self-control to stutter through the last few chapters for my children at bed-time. But now, onto the next classic…although I can’t handle ‘Dark Days’ from Little Women just yet. Buy Pollyanna from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

Me and My Books: The Grammar Conundrum

grammar
My books and myself? My books and I? Are you finding this difficult to read? And now I’ve started a sentence with ‘and’, which is okay in literary prose isn’t it? Although children are taught that you absolutely mustn’t start a sentence with ‘and’; it’s not deemed to be an acceptable sentence opener.

Seriously though, how much does it bother you? I read a LOT of books. Or a great many books! So many of them contain grammatical errors, particularly when I read them on the kindle, although admittedly many of the ebook errors are typos, which leaves me wondering if the digitisation was just a tad slapdash. Are we making more grammatical errors because our language is evolving and we deem it to be okay to finish a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, or use that instead of which, or are we just not taught grammar correctly anymore? Are there less copyeditors (yes, I know it’s fewer) with a good grammatical grounding?

The Super Adventures of Me Pig

Does it matter more if the grammar is correct in children’s books? Some children’s books are supposed to contain grammatical errors. The funniest book in our house at the moment is The Super Amazing Adventures of Me Pig by Emer Stamp. It starts like this:
“Hello.
Me I is Pig. I is 562 sunsets old. Well, I is guessing that is how old I is. I is not brilliant at counting. I got a bit confused around 487.”
The grammar here is not annoying because it’s supposed to be terrible – the author is writing as if he is a rather stupid pig, so the grammar reflects this, and it makes the book funny. The children testers for this book found it hilarious because they knew instinctively that it was grammatically very badly written. However, in order for them to find the style funny, they have to know the correct grammar to start with. But what about if the author is writing from a young child’s point of view, but in the third person narrative voice:
“He did, however, out of the corner of his eye, catch them doing that sarcastic thing they did, where one of them – Barry didn’t like separating TSE into two, as that was kind of recognising that they existed, but if he had to, he would refer to them as Sisterly Entities One and Two – would pretend to write down something he said, as if it was really important. Which of course was their way of saying that it wasn’t important at all. Barry really hated it when they did that.”
The Parent Agency, David Baddiel, illustrated by Jim Field

Heidi

What’s the difference between the book containing grammatical errors or just being badly written? Would a book flow better if the grammar was correct? Take an extract from Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Some might argue that the language is too ‘heavy’ and the style of writing too old-fashioned, and therefore it becomes prohibitive as a modern child needs something lighter. I don’t necessarily agree with that:
“Heidi looked at the jug that was steaming away invitingly, and ran quickly back to the cupboard. At first she could only see a small bowl left on the shelf, but she was not long in perplexity, for a moment later she caught sight of two glasses further back, and without an instant’s loss of time she returned with these and the bowl and put them down on the table.”

Narrative voice should also make a difference. If we can’t excuse David Baddiel for the writing above, would we be more willing to excuse it if he had written the book in the first person instead of the third person? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is acceptable because it’s written in a colloquial way in the narrative first person.
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
However, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is as much about accent and social commentary as it is about grammar. Do we always need to be grammatically incorrect to talk in a child’s voice? The following books all use grammar incorrectly for effect – to create the child’s personality and they’re all in the first person. Are the grammar mistakes immediately apparent to the average child?

Emily Sparkes

“This is completely a bad start and I am just thinking I need to change the subject quick because she is on an ‘eco-roll’ when it is too late and she says the terrible words.”
Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald

Clarice Bean Spells Trouble

“I go home in a very downcast-ish mood and even my older brother Kurt says, “What’s the matter with you?”
Which is unusual because usually he doesn’t notice other people’s gloom, he is too busy feeling gloom himself.”
Clarice Bean Spells Trouble by Lauren Child
But then surely, if Clarice is quoting her mother, as she does in the next extract, would her mother, as the adult, speak slightly better than she does here:
“When I ask Mum why he’s so cheerful, she says, “He’s just got himself this weekend job at Eggplant and it has really put him in a good mood.” To me, this still sounds like Clarice Bean – or is Clarice not quoting her mother directly, but twisting it from her memory into ‘Clarice speak’. Is bad grammar excused if it’s in speech marks because it’s representative of how we speak, which is often grammatically different from written prose?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is American, and so of course a reader should expect Americanisms, but the author also deploys a lack of good grammar for effect – it is a child’s diary after all.
“Us kids have pretty much figured Fregley out by now, but I don’t think the teachers have really caught on yet.”
However, if it’s being an ‘authentic’ kid’s diary – would the spelling all be correct, or should the editor be modifying that too to create ‘personality’? Tricky one, hey? What about apostrophes? They all seem to be correct in the Wimpy Kid books…should they not be? Do your children speak like this? Can readers/writers get inside the head of a youngster without resorting to bad grammar?

I have a child in my house who insists on saying “Me and my friend went swimming” instead of “My friend and I went swimming”. I correct her constantly, which must be ‘super irritating’! However, did she pick this up from reading, or from her other friends? One children’s book, which I read recently, made this one error all the way through, even though the rest of the book was grammatically correct. For effect or just an error? Has our language changed so much from the days of Johanna Spyri that it’s now acceptable for modern literature to have bad grammar littered throughout? Does the expanse of bad grammar in our midst mean that children’s authors have a responsibility to write with even more care for correct grammatical usage to teach our children what’s right in the first place? If our children pick up their language tools from reading, at what point do we think its okay to break the rules for effect? And one day will they even know the difference?

When does bad grammar become a literary style?

 

By the way, last Thursday I guest-blogged on another site, MG Strikes Back, about the role of animals in middle grade fiction. You can read it here. It mentions some of my recent favourite MG books too.

MG STrikes back

Every Day For Me is World Book Day

I wrote about focusing on the book, not the costume for World Book Day here. But I don’t want to appear negative, for I adore World Book Day. It’s a day to celebrate writers, writing and favourite characters. The bus stop was quite a sight this morning with unicorns, Horrid Henrys, monkeys, including my own adorable Muggle Wump, some crocodiles, and I even spotted Where’s Wally. Kudos to me! Of course I didn’t take the bus this morning, I used my Harry Potter floo powder to get to the library.

Other than dressing up, how can we celebrate books this World Book Day? There are lots of ideas on the WBD website, and hopefully many of us will visit our local independent bookshop to spend our £1 Book Day tokens. My son has a chart to fill in from school, in which he has to ask different members of society which is their favourite book and why. And he asked me.

“One book” I shrieked. What torture! And then I realised which it was.

Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This book is unique. I don’t think it can be pigeonholed as a children’s book, nor an adult book – although is often labelled as a classic. It’s historical, but not pegged as an historical novel. It’s semi-autobiographical (Louisa May Alcott didn’t correct readers writing her letters addressed to ‘Miss March’, but replied as if she were Jo.) It’s about feminism. It’s also a family saga, and a coming of age book. I suppose it was one of the first YA titles, although most children seem to read it as they reach the upper level of middle grade – about age 10-13yrs.
Little Women tells the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, during the American Civil War. Their father is absent, fighting in the war, and their mother is left to raise the girls alone. As they grow from children into adulthood, they face dramas of friendships, illness, arguments, breaking free from constraints of domesticity, and explore first love. The book highlights the wonder of storytelling, as well as espousing moral virtue over materialism, but the wonder of the book for many lies in the depth of characterisation of the four sisters.
They are each so well-defined that, as with Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, you can remember the character traits of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy long into your own adulthood. Meg, the beautiful compliant daughter; Jo, the non-conformist hot-tempered tomboy; Beth, the shy, quiet creature, whose sacrificial death can be read as the death of the era of quiet domesticity; and finally Amy, the vain and self-centred baby of the family, who nevertheless excels at art and pursues her passion for it no matter the cost. It teaches such important lessons subtly – women’s access to education, overcoming shyness and having confidence, practising small kindnesses, charitable acts, and the importance of a sense of humour too. Little Women was even mentioned in that long-running television comedy Friends, when the girls ruined the story for Joey by telling him what happens to Beth in that devastatingly sad chapter, Dark Days. I don’t think there’s any other book from which I can remember the actual chapter titles. The description of Christmas with the Marches made me long for an American family Christmas just like theirs, and even made me consider calling my  mother ‘Marmee’. It’s a beautiful re-read, and works wonderfully as a ‘read-aloud’ too. I implore you to revisit it – and then give it to your children.

So I chose my one book. However, the fun of being a children’s book blogger and writer is that I don’t have to choose one book. I blog twice a week (sometimes more) about all the amazing books there are for children to read. And I have to read the books to enable me to blog. I interview the authors and tweet with other writers. It’s a privileged and rewarding task. Every day for me is World Book Day.

 

Love in the Time of Children’s Books

book heart

I couldn’t resist a small Valentine’s Day post this week. But we are talking kids’ books so I’ll be very gentle.

I love you blue kangaroo

First Love: I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark
This has to be defined by love for a soft toy. Whether it’s a teddy or a monkey, for many of us our first true love was with a ball of fluff. To honour this I have chosen I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark. For those of you who don’t know the series, Blue Kangaroo is Lily’s favourite toy. In I Love You, Blue Kangaroo, Lily receives a stream of soft toy presents from an array of family members who have come to tea, to stay, or for her birthday – and gradually Blue Kangaroo gets edged further and further away from Lily at bedtime as the new toys take over. Then, one night Blue Kangaroo is pushed out of bed altogether and takes refuge with Lily’s little brother. Lily attempts to retrieve him:
“Mine!” cried the baby.
“No!” shouted Lily.
But Lily’s mother is aghast that Lily is pulling Blue Kangaroo from her baby brother’s arms when she has so many other toys. In the end Lily’s choice is easy – she hands over all the other toys to the baby, retaining only one:
“He can have all of these,” she said,
“but nobody can have Blue Kangaroo!”
This picture book reveals the beauty in allowing us to latch onto something special and keep it for ourselves – not everything has to be shared. Sometimes an attachment to one other object or person is what gives us security, passion and self-awareness. With up to 70 per cent of young children in the Western World having some sort of attachment to a toy or blanket, it’s good to see picture books celebrating this.
Age 4+

winnie the pooh

Friend Love: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne
I can think of few other books for young children that teach friendship as well as Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne. In the first story, this is demonstrated by Christopher Robin’s devotion to Pooh – helping him to obtain honey without ridiculing his plans, and assisting the madness by marching up and down with an umbrella in bright sunshine pretending it’s going to rain – Christopher Robin does not lose patience at all. Then, friendship is demonstrated in Pooh Bear’s loving generosity and kindness for Eeyore, as Pooh tries to lift Eeyore’s depression by bringing him birthday presents and building him a new house. In fact the entire population of 100 Acre Wood show their love for each other in their attempts to rescue their friend Eeyore from falling into the river, and their solidarity in their expositions to the pole, and their gradual acceptance of their ‘new’ friend when Tigger joins the wood. The epitome for me though remains the friendship between Pooh and Piglet. In every adventure Pooh attempts to motivate Piglet into overcoming his shyness and timidity, whether it be tracking woozles or tricking Kanga. In fact, it is the thought of helping Pooh that enables Piglet to summon the courage and rescue Pooh and Owl during a blustery day.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
Age range 5-105 yrs

Danny Champion of the World

Parental Love: Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Of course, before realisation dawns at puberty that our parents aren’t perfect, we may well in some cases idealise our parents, and certainly strive to please them. One of the very best examples of a father/son relationship in children’s fiction has to be the classic Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.
Danny lives with his Dad in a gypsy caravan at the garage where his father is a mechanic. One day he discovers his father’s love for pheasant hunting, and together they hatch a plan to outwit the horrible land-owner, Mr Victor Hazell, who doesn’t permit poaching on his land. Although an adventure story, the essence of Danny, Champion of the World is the relationship between him and his father. Danny almost hero-worships his father, and joins him in somewhat criminal activity which is life-threateningly dangerous, and yet in Danny’s eyes his father can do no wrong. Not only that but they have a strong emotional dependence upon each other, as Roald Dahl has written out the mother figure and any close friends. The story hinges on the moral choices that Danny makes, and the guidance and advice he gets from his father.
“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”
Age range: 7+ years.

Ballet Shoes

Sister Love: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Much middle grade fiction focuses on sibling tensions, jealousies and anxieties, but one of the truest forms of sister love is portrayed when the girls have actively chosen their own sisterhood. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield is a classic chidren’s book, slightly dated and old-fashioned, but nevertheless with a great sense of story and theatre. It tells of three orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy – adopted by an eccentric fossil collector. They decide to share a surname – Fossil – and thus impose sisterhood on themselves. The three sisters are very different people with different ambitions, and through the book they demonstrate sisterly love by working hard and sacrificing certain things in order that their other sisters can benefit. Pauline wants to work in the theatre, Petrova with cars, and Posy in ballet. The sisters like to insist that they have no family heritage to live up to as they are all adoptees – they have no ties that bind, and each birthday they make a vow to make something of the Fossil name themselves – unfettered. And yet, a clear component of their confidence and achievements is the support network of being one of three. What’s also lovely about this book is that the children are surrounded by adults who take an interest in their lives and want to spend time with them. Noel’s older sister Ruth illustrated the book when it was first published. Age range about 7+yrs.

The Last Wild

Animal Love: The Last Wild by Piers Torday
I wanted to include this book in my Valentine’s Day selection for two reasons. Firstly, because I really do love it – like a friend or like a Desert Island Disc book, and secondly because it fits in well under animal love in an unexpected way. This isn’t a book that is about a boy who loves animals – it doesn’t feature a trusty dog or a cuddly rabbit pet. This isn’t a typical ‘animal’ book – it’s an outstanding adventure story set in a dystopian landscape. It’s about courage and the environment and our relationship to it, and also about communication.
The Last Wild is a highly original story of a boy called Kester who is mute, but realises he can communicate with animals. This is particularly startling as he lives in a time when all the animals have been wiped out by a terrible virus. The Last Wild tells how a flock of pigeons and a particularly confident cockroach lead him to the last surviving group of animals in a desperate attempt to get him to help them save themselves. Kester’s (and the reader’s) love for animals grows as the story progresses. By the end we too love the animals, even the cockroach, because the animals have demonstrated their qualities to us – their loyalty, their strength, their bravery, and their fight for justice. I don’t want to give too much away – it’s a fast-paced, creative, brainstorming triumph. Buy it for every child you know aged about 9 or older.

Romance
There was a discussion this week among several bloggers/authors/interested partners about the place of romance in middle grade fiction. Most agreed that really there was no place for it, and that romantic love belongs in the Young Adult genre, not any younger. In much middle grade fiction, there is a ‘friendship’ that develops between a boy and a girl, or a tag team of boy and girl who attempt to solve the mystery/adventure together. One trilogy that cropped up time and again as one which features a form of romantic love is that of Will and Lyra from His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, and of course there is the kiss in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (although many would argue that Harry Potter ventures into YA territory and away from MG the further into the books one ventures). Quite often in middle grade books romantic love is introduced when the protagonist has an older sister or brother and it is through them (as an aside almost) that we witness love. But generally the argument is that middle grade is for finding your own identity – your own place in the world. Only once we graduate to young adult fiction do we start to become entangled in that messy web of romantic love.

 

Image: Book Heart from OnlyImage.com