The Childrens’ Laureate’s choices

There was much on the news and in the papers about the Childrens’ Laureate’s choices of best children’s books to celebrate 10 years of having the post – Long may it continue. The five Laureates, past and present, each chose about twelve books which were whittled down to seven. In the media, much is being made of the fact that just five of the thirty-five in total were published during the past twenty years. You can explore the full choices here.

The list is dominated by classics – E. E. Nesbit comes top with two entries, but there’s also Treasure Island, Ballet Shoes, A Little Princess, Emil and the Detectives amongst them, and yes – Enid Blyton appears too with one of the Famous Five books, but there’s no place for Harry Potter.

Jacqueline Wilson’s top seven in particular are a microcosm of everything I devoured as a kid, and that set me thinking about which books I would pick as my personal favourite children’s titles. Having just read a large number of mainly older children’s books for the Easter holidays, it seems like a fun exercise. My choices now are coloured by being a Mum and had to include my new favourites from reading with my daughter:

  • Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr – A creepy story of a girl’s drawings that come to life as she sleeps. I love this book and re-read it endlessly when I was a
    bout eight.
  • Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild- I’m with Jacqueline Wilson here. Another that I read repeatedly as a child.
  • Where the wild things are by Maurice Sendak – My daughter and I loved reading this one together. I adored the quirky and poetic text, she loved the monsters. It feels very contemporary but was actually published in 1967 – which perhaps explains its quirkiness!
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – the first proper book I remember reading, and getting more out of each time.
  • The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis. This was always my favourite of the Narnia books with Puddleglum the pessimist giving  ome comic relief. It’s also chock full of Christian allegory, but that went straight over my head as a kid (still does mostly).
  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler – An absolute modern classic for toddlers, written in rhyme with a mini-climax at

    the end of each page and I think I can still recite the whole tale word for word.
  • The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. This is the book that I enjoyed the most out of my recent reading – set during the early days of the French Revolution, and an absolutely rollicking adventure with a bit of everything! You can read my full review here.

I think when making lists of this kind, you inevitably draw from books that influenced you most as a child. Having an eight year old daughter and hence much recent reading of books for very young children, and a love of reading older children/ya books for myself, allowed me a bit more breadth to choose from. Without the Gruffalo and Sendak, The Railway Children and The Secret Garden would have been in there.

But don’t let lists that are light on recent titles fool you – there is plenty of absolutely top-class writing for children out there, and I intend to keep on finding and reading it.

The way of the Warrior

Across the Nightingale Floor (Tales of the Otori) by Lian Hearn

This is the first novel of a series set in an imaginary world based on feudal Japan and the chivalric Bushido code of conduct. It successfully takes you into that world of honor and loyalty, mastery of martial arts, married with simple living and appreciation of nature and art. Well – that’s how the good guys aim to act – but at heart remember they are all warriors.

The three nations that make up this land are at war and Lord Iida wants it all. He lives in fear of being assassinated though, the nightingale floor of his palace sings – no assassin could cross it without being heard. So he schemes and plans on how to trap the Otori clan into alliance, using the kidnapped daughter of another subdued Lord as bait. Iida is also systematically trying to wipe out the Hidden, a pseudo-Christian sect that live in secrecy. At the start of the novel young Tomasu is the only survivor of a massacre of Hidden and is rescued by Lord Otori Shigeru before Iida can kill him too. Shigeru recognises something in the boy and decides to adopt him, and thus begins a life of adventure, romance and very hard work for the boy, rechristened Takeo. Unbeknown to him though, another secret sect known as The Tribe, a sort of ninja assassin guild, also seek need him for their plans.

Hearn has produced a remarkably well realised world. Shigeru, in particular is a potent force for good, he was my favourite character by far. Takeo, whose life and career will develop in the subsequent volumes in this series, starts off as an empty shell, to be formed, like Kung-Fu‘s Grasshopper, into the warrior and more that is inside him. We are also introduced to young Lady Kaede, the hostage who is to be married to Shigeru, but predictably falls for Takeo. All are well fleshed out characters. Iida and his henchmen though are rather stereotypical baddies and sketchily drawn.

The novel is full of action, but takes its time. In between these scenes, there is much philosophy, talk of politics, and some time for romance too. Takeo, our grasshopper, has to learn many new skills and go on a voyage of self-discovery that leaves you at the end desperate for more. Volumes two and three immediately go onto my wish list – Highly recommended for 12+. (9/10)

That Latin motto – update …

Last month, I came up with a personal motto for the blog:-

Never leave home without a book

But mottoes are so much better in Latin. I loved Latin at school, but last studied it in 1976 and that was the Cambridge Latin course which worked by osmosis rather than grammar drill. So I got out a text book and set about trying to work it out – you can read about my first efforts here, (sorry can’t get link to work, original post was March 31).

I got as far as ‘Egredite domo nunquam sine liber’ – but I knew, or rather suspected, it wasn’t quite right.

I am now indebted to Dr Stephen Ridd, classics teacher at Abingdon School for correcting my schoolgirl Latin. I collared him this morning when he visited us and he sorted it out for me – I was on the right track wordwise, but grammatically I had some problems! Apparently when you are instructing someone not to do something, you have to approach it in a roundabout manner, telling them to be unwilling to do that thing.

So thanks to Stephen, the final motto, in the right Latin order translated into English, essentially reads: Be unwilling home to leave, unless a book you have. That’s very Yoda-ish – It’s much better in Latin …

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes


Superstition and fear – Your worst enemies in Puritan times…

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Right at the beginning of this remarkable novel, Mary’s grandmother is tortured, tried and dies for being branded a ‘witch’. Rees lets you know exactly what was in store for the poor women who as healers, herbalists and midwives, were routinely denounced as witches when something went wrong in the superstitious Puritan times.

Mary is helped to escape a similar fate by joining a bunch of settlers going to America. She slots into a group with an Apothecary, Jonah and his son, and Martha, a widow who herself has some skills as a midwife. Mary is unused to being confined on the ship although her writing skills, (unusual for a woman at that time) are in demand. When the settlers reach the New World, she is happy to travel on with the others to the settlement which the previous shipload of this congregation had established. This is when she meets her first native American, Jaybird and his father guide them, and she is intrigued. Once they have roofs over their heads, she starts to venture into the forest, helping Jonah to research for medicinal plants, but also often meeting Jaybird. But tongues start wagging, and Mary finds herself again the centre of speculation over her wayward ways …

The novel is written as diary entries ‘The Mary Papers’ that had been found sewn into a quilt. It shows us what a hard life it was to be an woman with unusual skills in those days; living in a society in which the fear of God was omnipresent, through the ministrations of the Puritan clergy. The settlers life was not easy either, that first year of building, battling the long snowy winter and taming the land to get crops in was particularly hard and many died.

I found this novel richly evocative, it seems very real. It is shocking to encounter the bigotry of the Puritan leaders – their small-town thinking and belief that they are “God’s chosen people, just like the Israelites”. No wonder it bred the paranoia of the witch-hunts, along with an total disregard for the Native American Indians. This novel was spell-binding (!) from start to finish, as good an adult read as for teens. (10/10)

The edition I read also has an interesting reading group guide in the back, and indeed I think this book would be an excellent choice for groups. Further reading suggestions include another novel for teens on a similar theme The Merrybegotby Julie Hearn which I shall have to search out, plus of course The Crucible by Arthur Miller – I know I have the DVD somewhere …

There are faeries everywhere – but not all can see them …

The Thirteen Treasures by Michelle Harrison

The debut novel from this young author is full of proper faeries, the kind with an ‘e’ from British folklore. They’re there right from the beginning, when Tanya’s faery tormentors decide how to make her day – not! For fourteen year old Tanya has second sight – she can see faeries, and knows the mischief they usually cause, and how they make her life very difficult indeed. So much so, that she’s packed off to stay with her grandmother so her unsuspecting mother can get a rest.

Her grandmother lives in a crumbling old mansion with stern groundsman/housekeeper Warwick, his odd son Fabian and his father Amos who is aged and mad. The mansion is full of locked rooms and is rumoured to have secret passages throughout, it is also full of mostly maelevolent faeries who block up the drains, switch sugar for salt and the like. Then at the bottom of the garden are Hangman’s Woods where a fourteen year old girl went missing fifty years ago…

So much happens in this novel, and I don’t want to give the plot away. I read it in one sitting carried along with the adventures of Tanya and Fabian as they explore the house and investigate the old mystery. I did like the folkloric faeries – the tales of the faery courts and changelings; encounters with goblins, brownies and more built into the plot. I would have liked to slow down occasionally so I could enjoy them more, but there were so many elements to get through to reach the end.

Parts did remind me strongly of the Spiderwick Chronicles, (I’ve only seen the film of that though), but if you’ve seen or read that, you would enjoy this novel for 10+yrs. It was fun and easy to read, if a little self-conscious at the beginning, but once the action picked up there was no time for such analysis – you had to stay with Tanya and the little critters to see what would happen next. (7/10)

“If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”

The Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick

Now this is a proper novel about vampires – and they don’t even make an appearance properly until late in the book, however, they are mentioned in the blurb, so I’m hardly giving the game away. It’s also a proper book about Venice, set in the 18th century during the end of the winter carnevale – approaching the start of Lent, when Venice becomes a masked city of revellers.

Marko, a doctor’s son, comes to the city after receiving a strange letter from his father Alessandro, who had travelled there to attend an old friend Simono, a glassmaker, who was seriously ill. When he arrives, he finds his father has disappeared, Simono has gone mad and his daughter Sorrel is at the end of her tether, worried that her father will die and that their house is cursed. Strange things are happening in and around Venice involving a band of celebrants with a strange tattoo. They seem likely to come to a head during the festival when the new Doge takes his seat, and it seems that Simono is somehow involved in these events. It becomes a race against time for Sorrel and Marko who, as you may expect, begin to fall for each other, to solve the mystery, to find Alessandro and cure Simono.

Sedgwick’s gothic Venice is wonderfully realised; it’s one of my favourite literary settings.  You can smell the stench, you can hear the water constantly lapping on the piles, and you can feel the damp and gathering dread in the fog. It’s also all the better for the vampire action coming from Eastern Europe folklore rather than any modern romantic interpretation, it’s subtle yet menacing and not pretty at all – the quote at the top from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice above seems to sum it up well.

Although this is, I later discovered, a sequel to a previous book, My Swordhand is Singing, this novel stands perfectly well on its own.  In summary, this is a sophisticated novel for teens steeped in a sense of time and place, and also a cracking good adventure. I will definitely read more of Sedgwick’s novels.   (9/10)

A Cinematic treat for readers of all ages…

The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures by Brian Selznick

This book has a fascinating concept. It’s a chunkster of over 500 pages that can be read in just a couple of hours for over half the pages are pictures – black and white pencil drawings mostly. But it’s not a graphic novel, this book is full of a deep love for the pioneers of cinema. The sequences of drawings within are intentioned as sequences of frames in a film which you can flick through like a flip book to fully get the sense of movement in them – zooming in on a detail, or panning and scanning as you follow a character around between written scenes. It also happens to be beautifully designed with black edges which frame the pages and set off the drawings, and later some historic photos and film stills, to a T.

To the story briefly:- Paris in the 1930s. Hugo is an orphan who lives inside the walls of a railway station where he has taken over his Uncle’s job as clock-keeper. His Uncle disappeared one day and Hugo, whose father had been an horologist and mechanic, has been able to keep all the clocks of the station working without being seen. Hugo’s grand project is to restore an automaton that he rescued from the museum fire that his father perished in. He has quietly been stealing parts from clockwork toys from the station’s toy stall – but one day he’s caught by the stall’s owner, Georges – a rather depressed old man, and later meets his ward Isabelle …

It’s an enchanting story, well-told and the illustrations really do add a cinematic feel. You could easily envision a film of this tale and the pictures do make the book. Children from about 8 and upwards will enjoy it as I did – It’s certainly left me wanting to find out more about the early days of photography and cinema. (9/10)

It’s now becoming obvious to me that there have been some strong themes developing in my choice of reading material this Easter. The Invention of Hugo Cabret in particular links to several of the others …
  • It is set in Paris as is The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner which also featured a kind of automaton, as did The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke with its Venetian ‘magic’ roundabout!
  • Then there is the whole business of wind-up mechanisms – The mouse and his child by Russell Hoban was about broken clockwork mice, and a wind-up mouse gets broken in Hugo Cabret too.
  • Then we have clocks and time itself – Hugo knows all about clocks; Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson is about a particular clock that can control time; and Numbers by Rachel Ward is all about dates.

… and now I’ve just started my second novel set in Venice …

Sheer Poetry – a remarkable read

Cloud Busting by Malorie Blackman

This is unlike any other children’s story I have ever read. A series of 26 short poems, telling the story of Sam and Davey, and all about bullying and friendship, secrets and lies, and the terrible thing that happened one day …

Told entirely in Sam’s voice, the poems are mostly in a prose style, following rhythms of speech and thought. The poems really do capture Sam’s emotional turmoil. There is no need for unnecessary explanation, it’s all in the words. But in between are also ones composed in haiku, limerick and blank verse styles. The author explains the forms in an afterword, which will be useful to young readers. Each of the poems is also illustrated with lovely drawings by Helen van Vliet which capture the sentiments within each section beautifully.

This is a remarkable and rewarding read for about 8yrs and upwards. Like many poetic forms, it would be even more moving spoken aloud, and I’m sure it would be an excellent tool for talking about bullying also. 10/10

A realistic novel of pampered pets and fearsome beasts in Ancient Rome

Tiger, Tiger by Lynne Reid Banks

Two tiger cubs brought to Rome – one is destined for the arena; the other is defanged, booted and becomes a much loved pet for the Emperor’s daughter Aurelia who is twelve. She begins to fall for the tiger’s handler Julius, to her cousin Marcus’ dismay. When a prank played on Julius goes wrong, the consequences are severe as they both learn to their cost.

This novel will delight and dismay in equal quantities. Delight at the antics of Aurelia and her pampered pet, and dismay at the bloodthirst in the arena. The author doesn’t shy from showing the reader the gory nature of the Roman games which utterly revolt the Emperor’s daughter who has to grow up fast.

We also learn a lot about cats – sections of the book are written from the tigers’ points of view. They’re not so unlike our felines, just bigger scale and harder to domesticate! Luckily for younger readers, the tigers are reunited in the end. I preferred this to the Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence, and would thoroughly recommend for 6-9yr olds. 8/10

Tempus Fugit – Time flies when you’re having fun!

Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson

There is much to like in Winterson’s novel for older children (upwards). I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope it might have a sequel some time.

This fast-moving Fantasy/SF novel, (it’s a bit of both), about the power to control time, owes a lot to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It has a sparky young heroine, a Mrs Coulter-esque chief baddy who experiments on children, and most importantly, the McGuffin – the Timekeeper – the powerful device that everybody wants. Mix in a dash of quantum physics, teleportation, time travel, an underground world beneath London, an Egyptian temple and a strong supporting cast including a giant rabbit, and you have all the ingredients for a heady adventure full of excitement, thrills, spills and some rather scary moments too.

Silver, our heroine, lives in her old family home – Tanglewreck, with Mrs Rokabye as her guardian; her parents and sister having vanished previously. Weird things are beginning to happen with time – it’s warping, and time tornadoes have started to suck up and spit out people from different times and places. When Silver and Mrs Rokabye are approached by Abel Darkwater, a clock specialist who is searching for a old clock called the Timekeeper that Silver’s father had been custodian of, Mrs Rokabye sees her chance to make a fortune – if only Silver could remember where the clock is …

As an adult reader, I enjoyed the novel immensely, spotting all the references and influences and chuckling at the way the author warped space/time to work the plot. I think younger readers may be confused with the SF side of things reading it on their own, but it would make a great adventure for reading together; older readers will get the gist and will probably know a little about many of the historical characters mentioned. 9/10