classics

Bookwandering with Anna James

Pages & CoPages & Co: Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James is the first in a trilogy that tells the story of eleven-year-old Matilda (Tilly) Pages, who has lived with her grandparents above their bookshop ever since her mother disappeared shortly after Tilly was born. If you’ve ever witnessed a child completely immersed in a book so that they don’t even hear their own name being called, then you’ll understand the type of character Tilly is. She loves books, and with good reason. Her grandparents’ bookshop is an idyll – with nooks and hidden corners, chairs to nestle into, and all the time the permeating aroma of hot chocolate and fresh baking from the café.  

But there is more magic to the bookshop than great cakes and good books. Before long, Tilly is seeing characters from books come alive inside the shop – at first they speak to just her grandparents, but before long she meets Alice (from Wonderland) and Anne (from Green Gables). And then, to her surprise, she finds she can accompany them back to their own worlds too – and her book wandering adventures begin.

The premise of the book is delightful for book lovers – to literally escape into the book, and James is brave here – writing words into Alice’s and Anne’s mouths, even writing a tea party scene from Wonderland, in which Tilly meets the Mad Hatter. James pulls this off with aplomb, capturing the essence of the classic characters in both their speech and their mannerisms. She also executes the rules of her bookwandering world with skill – adeptly laying out for the reader (and Tilly) when it’s possible to enter a book, how to exit, and how the whole system is managed.

Tilly discovers that bookwandering doesn’t just happen in her grandparents’ bookshop, Pages & Co, but in many others, and the management of bookwandering happens in the underbelly of The British Library, where she is eventually invited to learn the rules. (A really wonderful scene here, in which Tilly has to learn to bookwander by starting in an early reader, Peter and Jane book, in which nothing happens).

The book leaps into even more adventurous territory when Tilly discovers that bookwandering may explain her mother’s disappearance.

This is a wonderfully engaging and cosy book with adventure, magic and friendship, and may encourage children to venture towards the classics mentioned above (and also A Little Princess). Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anna James onto MinervaReads to tell you about the real places that inspired Pages & Co:

Anna JamesReal life inspired Pages & Co in several ways (and probably in many other subconscious ways I’m not even aware of). I’ve pulled from people, places, and feelings to try and make the world of the book feel as real as possible, despite the magic going on. There’s one place I literally just stole, but several others inspired some of the locations of the plotlines of the book; here are five that had the biggest impact.

  1. My grandparents house

Tilly’s grandparents are hugely important to her, and to the story. Tilly lives with them in their bookshop and they are essentially her parents. While all of the characters are fictional, Tilly’s grandparents are the most directly inspired by real people; my grandparents. Sadly they didn’t live in a bookshop, but they did live in a farmhouse that they converted themselves, in the Scottish Borders. It was a house with a real fire, with Grandad’s emerald velvet armchair in front of it, full of bookshelves, and the kitchen in Pages & Co is basically their kitchen with its pantry, big table and Grandma making gooseberry crumble

  1. Masons of Melrose

Linked to my grandparents house is Masons of Melrose, their local independent bookshop. When we visited we used to walk from their house down the River Tweed to Melrose where we’d visit the bookshop and then walk back to eat and read in front of the fire. This bookshop is also where my Grandad used to choose our Christmas books, and the booksellers there recommended me, via him, to read Northern Lights and Harry Potter when I was 10.

  1. The University of Birmingham

I studied Modern and Medieval History at the University of Birmingham and I specialised in the early modern period; the Reformation and Tudor History, especially the history of printing and the impact it had on the period. The university is a beautiful red brick campus and the Great Hall, where I graduated, was one of the buildings I used when I was creating the British Underlibrary. I also spent a lot of time in the library, which has since been updated and modernised, but the old red brick building that was at the centre of the campus is my library, and the one that influenced the Underlibrary (more on that later).

  1. North London

I’ve lived in north London for just over three years now and I love it. Hampstead Heath, Alexandra Palace, my local high street full of independent coffee shops – when I started writing Pages & Co the only place I could imagine it, was near where I live. It is entirely impossible it could be, with its four floors and architectural dubiousness, but it’s still where it is in my imagination. It’s also, crucially, near to Kings Cross St Pancras which leads me on to the last real place which inspired me.

  1. The British Library

I write mostly at my local coffee shop or at the British Library, whose airy quiet reading rooms are perfect to get you in the right mood for writing. When I needed a location for a secret community of bookwanderers, I knew straightaway that it needed to be concealed somehow at this beautiful library. In the centre of the atrium there is The King’s Library, a tower of very old books, which is not accessible to the public, and it seemed the perfect place to hide a magical, apparently out of order, lift…

With huge thanks to Anna James for mapping her inspirational geography for MinervaReads. You can buy a copy of Pages & Co here.

 

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

the lost magicianWhen I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I had no conception of the word ‘allegory’, and certainly hadn’t grasped the idea that I was reading a story that CS Lewis described as ‘supposal’: “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there.

Piers Torday has taken Narnia to heart in his latest novel, The Lost Magician, writing it he says as an homage to Narnia. And although there is no Christian allegory, there is definitely much ‘supposing’, and a supposition of a world that mirrors our own in presenting conflict and argument and much darkness, except that, in Torday’s Folio (his version of Narnia), there are talking bears and a self-doubting unicorn.

It is 1945 and Simon, Patricia, Evie and Larry have survived the Blitz, despite the scars it has left on their memories. They arrive at Barfield Hall, a country house, where lives a female professor involved in experimentation revolved around imagination. Through a portal in a strange library in the attic they stumble across a world called Folio – an enchanted kingdom of bears and knights and other creatures found in stories, but also of futuristic fluid metallic robots. These two factions are at war, and the children’s learned horrors of their own war teaches them that they must stop this war, the key to which is finding the lost magician – the creator of the library who has been missing for centuries.

On the surface this novel is a good classic adventure story, with a cast of empathetic children who feel far more authentic than the Narnia quartet, with an intrusion of real world scars into their psyche. Simon, the eldest, has his perceived ideas of masculinity on display, wanting to show his prowess to emulate his war-hero father. Evie experienced trauma in the war, whereas for Larry, the youngest, shown still clutching his teddy and bumping him up the stairs (a la Christopher Robin and Pooh), the rubble of the Blitz was merely a grand landscape for exploration. With them all, their witness to the horror of war informs their decision making.

And the world of Folio that Torday has conjured feels as well-drawn as Wonderland. The reader can see the beauty of the green countryside of fairy-tale land – the house of the three bears, the trees, the fields, the wind buffeting the foliage. And yet also, all too clearly, the metallic glint of the oppositional city, with its enduring light glowing like a beacon of future possibility, and the metallic people, strong and upright.

So on one level this is, as Narnia, a simple trip into a new world through a portal in the old, told in gripping, pacey language with tension and pathos and humour, with Torday’s marvellous descriptive language carrying the reader through with a light touch of his magic pen. And yet, there is so much more when one looks beyond the surface enchantment.

Of course there are literary allusions within the text. Nuggets of Narnia are dripped like gold leaves into the novel, and any novel that uses a library as a portal is bound to make use of the literary canon of children’s literature, and a particular action sequence reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark….

But peel further, and the layers of the novel reveal much much more. Whereas Larry enters Folio through the shelves of ‘Read’ books – representing fiction, Evie enters through the UnReads – the books that represent the facts of the future, the non-fiction. And there is still another shelf in the library through which no-one enters, but which poses the greatest existential threat of all – the Never Reads. These represent ignorance.

When the children enter Folio, they discover that the Reads are at war with the UnReads – a clash of fiction and fact, of fairy tale characters and fact-based sci-fi robots. Larry chooses the Reads, as one would expect from the way he treats his teddy as a live being. Evie ‘betrays’ the other children by choosing the UnReads, wanting to believe in the bright shiny future of hard fact. Here, Torday is clever to draw some ambiguity over the ‘truths’ given by the Queen of the Unreads – a shady figure although physically illuminated in bright numbers, with a body that’s essentially fluid – much like her facts. She is mirrored of course on the White Witch.

By casting his war as story vs fact Torday is speaking to the very heart of what is happening in our society today. The battles in the book are ferocious, the sides pitted heavily against each other; a fractious world of polarised arguments in an angry climate. Here truth is twisted to lies, story is laid as propaganda, news is fake, and trust is misguided.

But this is a novel, and so Torday waves his wand to provide some clarity. The children discover that stories, even of one’s own past, are crucial in providing explanation for our world. That knowledge is valuable and true facts worth remembering, that imagination can provide a crutch when dealing with our own reality.

And yet all this is at risk from the fire and fury of the Never Reads – the ignorant. This last ‘shelf’ of books poses a threat to both the Reads and the UnReads. Whether the threat of the ignorant recalls the Nazi book burning, or Trump’s reported lack of reading will depend upon the reader – and this too is where Torday makes another point. This book is about the power of the reader, and particularly the child as reader – again a paean to those Victorian and Edwardian children’s authors, Carroll, Lear, Barrie, Milne, and CS Lewis who understood the deep influence of the literature people read when they were children, and the power of the child to see wonder in the world.

By the hopeful end (this is a children’s book), the reader understands their own power and also how to use it wisely in reaching across the gulf to understand another’s point of view, recognising that humans have more in common than that which divides them.

There is much more here too – the importance of libraries, a clever nod to the evil of numbers in WW2, building the new without destruction of the old, an understanding that not all children are avid readers – Simon in the novel is dyslexic in a time when dyslexia wasn’t recognised. But above all, there is the beauty of Torday’s writing in telling a good story.

The Lost Magician proves that Torday is on top of his game in spinning the storytelling magic – this magician is anything but lost and any reader who picks up the book will be well and truly found. You can buy it here.

Age Before Beauty?

the twitsIf you’re a regular reader of my blog on children’s books, or even an infrequent one, you’d probably surmise that I read mostly recent children’s fiction, the ‘just published’ category. World Book Day books too lean towards the new and shiny authors, and most of the WHSmith stock is very contemporary (the exceptions being Roald Dahl and some Judy Blume).

However, I don’t just blog about children’s books, but also work with education consultancies and school libraries, parents and carers, suggesting books for lots of different children, and so I always like to include ‘backlist’ and ‘classics’ on the list too. My blog is sometimes a place for publishers and publicists to show off their latest books (although don’t worry, there’s a filter, I only promote books I’ve read and enjoyed or see merit in). But I do worry that older books are being forgotten, or crowded out of the marketplace.

It seems that I’m not alone in this. A recent hashtag appeared on Twitter, called #LostPrimaryBooks, against which teachers and others proclaimed their love for long lost and forgotten titles, which aren’t necessarily classics, but are much loved stories from when they were children. Some of them still have a relevant place in today’s classrooms, homes and libraries. (I will always have immense passion for Lois Duncan and SE Hinton books).

Simon Smith also brought this to attention with his recent blog on book recommendation, in which he worried that we are too focussed on the next new thing. And probably not just in books, but in all walks of life.

Although I’d never push Sweet Valley High on my children (unless they found the series themselves and wanted to read them), I do often include titles in my recommendations that weren’t published in the last five years.

Because, even with my ‘fluent’ readers groups, I’ve noticed that classics, old stories, and even fairy tales aren’t being heard or absorbed. And this is troubling because without a background of fairy stories, folk tales, and even bible stories, passed down, we lose the ability to see ‘intertextuality’, to link and connect across cultures. Most of the children I talk to have never heard of those old Bible stories – Daniel and the Lion’s Den, David and Goliath, etc. Does it matter? Well, when the media reference a battle as being David and Goliath, or the football commentators say it, do our young people understand what they mean? And will these phrases and terms pass from the vernacular?

And more importantly, when different cultures compare folk stories, we often see the same patterns, the same plot variations, the same use of imagination, the same fears and joys. And if these disappear, we lose common ground, we lose the ability to connect over shared explanations and ideas. These cultural folk tales, Bible stories, fairy stories, also give children a sense of their own history, and the ‘classics’ can give children a sense of literary history too.

letters from the lighthouseI was recently leading a book group of fluent readers on evacuee fiction. We discussed many recent examples – Wave Me Goodbye by Jacqueline Wilson, Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, The Emergency Zoo by Miriam Halahmy. I also referenced Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Margorian, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr. All titles kept in the school library, but only one child had read these latter three. But most fascinating was that I discovered the British Government’s plan to evacuate the children was called Operation Pied Piper. That made perfect sense to me – but sadly the group of children hadn’t come across this legend, and so didn’t understand my lightbulb moment.

I hear the ‘Pollyanna’ effect as a phrase used in modern television and film dialogue quite frequently, and yet if one hasn’t heard of the book, it’s hard to know what the phrase means. And I recently made a reference on twitter to ‘Reader, I married him’ about reading Jane Eyre to my daughter, but it’s not a popular choice among today’s teens. True, not everyone will read or like the classics, but we shouldn’t lump them all in the past in a collective ‘boring’ or ‘exam only’ pile. Some reluctant readers could be as enthralled by Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye and The Lord of the Flies as I am – they’re pretty short too!

For April Fools’ Day I decided to reference The Twits and the pranks they played upon each other. I started my session by making the assumption that the group of Year 1-4 would have heard the story before. I was vastly wrong. Most of them hadn’t. (This particular group of children came from fairly affluent backgrounds and most had box sets of Walliams on their shelves, so it was surprising to me that they hadn’t been read to, or read themselves, the classic Roald Dahl books).

I’m not proposing we revisit the times of the Dahl Effect (in which primary school teachers only used well-worn texts as they had no knowledge of contemporary fiction), and yet perhaps it’s time to revisit some of the backlist of children’s books alongside the contemporary. Studying Journey to the River Sea published in 2001 with The Explorer published in 2017 is great for investigating intertextuality. I read What Lexie Did by Emma Shevah last week (just published) – a brilliant book about knowing when to lie and when to tell the truth, which could be compared to On the Way Home by Jill Murphy, Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead, the classic folk tale The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or Cautionary Tales for children by Hilarie Belloc.

When publishers re-issue old favourites such as 101 Dalmations with new illustrations – they present us with the perfect opportunity to revisit these texts.

tiger who came to teaMany older titles stand the test of time wonderfully. Classic picture books such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr has remained in the top 5,000 books sold every year since records began in 1998.

And not only do some of these titles stand the test of time, and warrant reading by today’s sometimes attention-zapped youngsters, but some of them haven’t been much bettered in the message they are trying to convey. Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough, published 2003, is one of my favourite picture books for impressing upon the reader the idea of believing in your dreams and not being bullied out of them. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, published 1969, is still a brilliant introduction to the lifecycle of a butterfly. Corduroy by Don Freeman, published 1968, still stands the test of time as a great picture book about friendship, belonging and materialism.

I know we look to modern books for certain representation that may not have been there in the past, but for feisty girls smashing the patriarchy, I always harp back to Mary in The Secret Garden – leading the way in fighting the adversity of her situation (parents dead, expectations demanded of her because of her gender) and yet railing against all expectations and freeing Colin from his misery. How about Jane Eyre, or the girls in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, who foil the baddies with wit and guile? Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair? The Fossil Sisters from Ballet Shoes? I could go on and on. I never felt misrepresented as a determined girl, and also saw the changing face of gender expectations within historical contexts.

In terms of diversity, modern books still aren’t cracking it yet, although things are starting to change – there still aren’t enough BAME protagonists, or Jewish characters. This minority group seem to feature in WW2 books occasionally, fighting back against the Nazis, but hardly ever in other time frames.

My point is that we need to make sure children are excited about new books – there’s little better than hearing a child ask if the next book in the series is out yet – but also we want to encourage them to read the strong backlist too. It’s far easier to get that instant gratification if the whole series has already been written. The only disappointment they’ll feel is the answer they get when they ask their librarian to book Enid Blyton for an author visit…

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

straange star

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.

shakespeare sticker

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…..

hubble bubble monkey

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.

worst witch

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.

titchy witch

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.

winnie the witch

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.

meg and mog

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

Gulliver

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

mockingbirdwatchman

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.