Category Archives: Humour

The onion fryers

I’m reading a real onion fryer kind of book right now. I almost got impatient with the Resident IT Consultant for coming back from his walk, because I was reading so comfortably and there he was and I had to make conversation instead. Who am I kidding? I did get impatient, but only quietly. It was just the right kind of day for reading; chilly and dark, and it was so inviting, there in my holey armchair. (Don’t worry, I’ve covered the holes with a blanket for the moment. Tartan. Because we’re in Scotland.)

Despair had been creeping in, because I’d had a few books I wasn’t rushing to get back to. They don’t have to be real onion fryers (that’s my name for them, borrowed from Adèle Geras, who has described the can’t-let-go-of books as ones she reads while stirring the onions she’s frying for dinner), but I like to feel a certain longing when I think of returning to my reading chair. Coming up with other things to do instead is not a recommendation.

What I find so amazing is that my current onion fryer was offered by a writer so diffident, but who truly belongs to the very greatest of children’s authors, that I’d have snatched it out of their hands, had we been in the same room.

I have a few onion books sitting around at the moment. One of them was also of the hard to come by kind, as I only found out about it by chance and then had to ask for it. Now, is it wrong to be so desperate for onion style sequels by – I would think – one of the more reliably bestselling authors of today? Should I leave an excellent book by someone who is less in need of another review, in favour of a needier book? In fact, is that why I had to ask for it? Did the publisher feel it needed less TLC?

For about a year I’ve carried a book round with me on trips, expecting to ‘read it next’ and when I finally got to it the other week, I was rather underwhelmed. I didn’t mind it, but neither was I making excuses to go and sit down with it. All I wanted to do was to grab one of my onion fryers instead.

I think my reasoning here is along the lines of that intelligent Dave Allen sketch about bread. You have fresh bread, warm from the oven. But you have a bit of yesterday’s stale bread, and you must eat it first. Which means that today’s lovely fresh bread will be tomorrow’s stale offering, which you have to eat before… And so on. Whereas I reckon I can just as well toast yesterday’s bread tomorrow as today, so will eat the new bread first.

The same goes for books. I’m all set to read every one – or most – of the onion books now. And maybe when I’m done, there will be more of them waiting. Just not sure what to do about the ‘toast.’ Because I do like toast.

The Case of the Exploding Loo

Do I strike you as a witch who’d be offended by exploding portaloos, or mentions of poo?

No? Thank you. Unless, of course, the exploding loo means one is caught short.

Rachel Hamilton, The Case of the Exploding Loo

Anyway, a book that is both humorous and has a Faraday’s cage as part of the plot, can not only not be bad, but must of necessity be pretty good. The Case of the Exploding Loo by Rachel Hamilton (she’s the one who worried about offending my sensitivities) is silly, but fun.

Noelle’s scientist dad has disappeared in an explosion in a portaloo. The police reckon he is dead, as they could only find a pair of smoking shoes, but his daughter is set on solving the puzzle and starts an investigation. She phones the police so often that they want to scream when they hear her voice.

But someone has to find her dad, and it clearly won’t be the stupid police. Sort of aided by her older sister Holly, Noelle uses her very high IQ to come up with ideas. Their mum has gone bananas, and life in the Hawkins household gets stranger every day.

She is perhaps not so skilled socially as Holly, but Noelle still finds lots of clues missed by the police. And with the help of a portaloo fan, some meccano and an old police retainer, they discover the weirdest things.

Read, if you want to find out. Might help if you are young of mind, like I am. Poo.

Jellybaby corpses and other gruesome stuff

Last time I went to Waterstones Argyle Street (Glasgow, for those of you who don’t know) was to talk to John Barrowman. That was nice. Two and a half years later I returned to launch Kirkland Ciccone’s second novel Endless Empress, only to find that in the corner where John’s fans had queued, someone had built a café. Very nice (but where will they queue next time?). And toilets (where the interview happened…). Also very nice, not to mention convenient.

Endless Empress

Where was I? Oh, yes, launching Ciccone’s book. (I might have told you already how disappointed I was when I found out that’s not his real name. Well, last night I discovered he doesn’t know how to pronounce it, either.* Or, his publisher and editor – Keith Charters – doesn’t. Might be a Cumbernauld thing, I suppose.)

So, there we were, about to launch. He has lots of friends, that Kirkland, and many of them were there. It was probably the most uniformly aged audience I’ve come across, outside schools.

Kirkland Ciccone

He wore dead leopard. Fake dead leopard, I hope (it looked a bit cheap, so it probably was), and it made him unbearably warm, which is why Kirkland had to take it off as soon as he’d stopped his crazy talk.

Keith Charters

Kirkland was introduced by Keith, who reckons his author is the funniest thing since sliced bread. When editing the book, there was always something new to discover on every read-through.

Endless Empress had a few provisional titles before it became EE; Dead Teenagers, Enkadar, Bombers, The X39 Is Late Again, and finally Endless Empress. Kirkland doesn’t want to write normal YA books (I can well believe it) and is hoping to prove himself to his old school. Or was it teacher? He’s a ‘pop culture sponge’ who listens to what people say in queues.

He cried when he had to read Women In Love at school (Cumbernauld, again). We were entertained by tales of his crazy, chainsaw wielding neighbour, as well as talking bushes (a flasher who mistook Kirkland for a girl), and women crying by the ice cream van. Kirkland doesn’t like Thomas the Tank Engine.

Kirkland Ciccone

At one point in the pre-publication days he worried that the book might be too realistic. He felt that the high school massacre he wrote about almost came true. And his Elvis impersonator killer did too.

Kirkland wanted a really cool and edgy cover. Keith got him art student Ida Henrich, who has made a pretty spectacular cover, despite the fire at the Glasgow School of Art.

Kirkland Ciccone and Ida Henrich

We got the Spanish holiday story again. His mum took him to Spain on holiday when he was a child. When he was invited to the Tidelines book festival in Saltcoats last year, he discovered that Saltcoats had a lot in common with Spain. In fact, it was Spain. Like many good mums his mum pretended a Spanish holiday.

This camp – not manly – author is of the YA generation. He was terribly excited to have been invited to lunch with Julia Donaldson and Theresa Breslin (except it seems he was incapable of going to the right restaurant). Kirkland finished by saying he hoped people would like Endless Empress as much as he loves it himself (quite) and that £7.99 might seem much, but it’s the price of two coffees and a muffin. Apparently.

Waterstones Cafe

Then there was Irn-Bru and wine and jellybabies (which look like corpses, or some such thing). I’d been promised Coke. What I got was Waterstones water with Waterstones ice.

What happened to my Coke?

*Mr Ciccone has since pointed out to me that he does know how to pronounce his own name, although of course it isn’t his name. He simply borrowed it off some woman.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle

It was touch and go with the glacé cherries. But four hours before I learned that every house has a packet somewhere, we re-acquired a tub of cherries. Phew.

Terry Pratchett’s youthful short stories, as collected in Dragons at Crumbling Castle, just prove that he has always been what he is. Only he was younger once, but then that is an affliction we have all suffered from.

Terry Pratchett, Dragons at Crumbling Castle

I admit, I was worried that someone, somewhere was scraping the barrel, and that I’d not like this book so much. I’m sorry, I occasionally get very crazy notions. Won’t happen again.

There are Carpet People stories, and abominable snowmen and tortoises, boring knights and people who dance funny and a bus that jumps through time. And those dragons.

This is a lovely collection of stories. The illustrations by Mark Beech are quite crazy, in a Quentin Blake-ish sort of style, and I must warn you that on page 169 there is a picture of individuals wearing feather head-dresses. But then I suppose Terry isn’t running for diversity.

These stories are far too good for children. Oops, I mean for children not to share with older people. But you knew that.

To be more right than others

Honestly, I prepared last Wednesday’s blog post because I liked the list of books and its ethos, but basically I was being lazy. I imagined the list would pass silently by most of you.

But oh no. When you least expect it, trouble brews. And it brewed pretty stormily, too. Because two of the books celebrating diversity were ‘only spouting stereotyping.’ In this case of Native Americans (and I don’t know if this is the acceptable term, but it was used by my attackers), and no one could have been more surprised than I was.

The authors, on the other hand, were not. They have been the target for this kind of thing before.

As I said, I have not read Apache, so will leave it out for the moment. I have read and enjoyed Amazing Grace. My understanding of the diversity aspect of Grace is that it’s because she is a black girl in England. The fact that she spends a moment pretending to be a Native American is beside the point. There are many of us who have done so.

Now, you could (as an author or a publisher) consult specialists, to make sure you don’t go upsetting anyone. I understand this happens more often than you think. But experts can be ‘wrong,’ too, or not of quite the same persuasion as those who later complain or harass.

What’s more, the comments last week felt as if they were aimed at me. I didn’t compile the list and I didn’t write the books, although I wish I had. I am white, but that doesn’t automatically make me one of the people who have mistreated Native Americans. There are many white people who have also been – and still are – unfairly treated and discriminated against.

When you feel really strongly about something, there is a tendency to forget others. It’s ‘me, me, me’ all the way. It’s also easy to use a tone of voice that will generally not get you far. Even for serious matters, a sense of humour and a portion of intelligent conversation will get you more followers and better results.

Most children like pretending. It’s part of normal childhood. There is nothing wrong with that, unless you use violence or have access to an adult’s weapons (as is far too common in some places). As a dear friend of mine put it: ‘I don’t think little girls wearing head-dresses and sitting cross-legged is the cause of the tremendously awful situation of Indians, or if all these illustrations were wiped off the face of the earth, anything would change.’

When the young Witch played at being an Indian, it was from the perspective of admiring the people she saw in Westerns on television. They seemed exciting and they looked beautiful. To be told now that I was stereotyping, and effectively colluding in the awful treatment of these people in real life is upsetting, and also very useless. No one saw me. If they had, I’d have looked pitiful. It was on the inside of my mind that great things were taking place. I didn’t use books or obtain views of the world from the – apparently – bad British media. I only had Hollywood films.

I’m sure I am far more prejudiced than I would like to think. I don’t always have all the facts, or the totally correct, most recent facts. But I mean well, and any political correctness comes from my heart, not through clichés. It’s human to make mistakes. I’d like to think that any persecution of authors of children’s books are just that; human mistakes.

I make plenty of mistakes, all the time. And I’d prefer not be criticised for it, but I’d rather someone tells me off for the bad things I do, than for an author who has written a rather lovely book about a nice little girl who likes to play and use her imagination. Neither I, or the author or Grace have had anything to do with what mostly white Americans have done to the people who lived there first.

Nor do I believe that removing a couple of books from a list will make life better for Native Americans.

Diverse voices

One more list, and then I’ll be done. (Or possibly not. You never know.) Seven Stories and the Guardian have got together and listed the 50 best children’s books on cultural and ethnic diversity. It’s a really good list,

and I was really pleased because I felt I had read so many of the books on it. Until I counted them and it was about a third, so maybe I have some way to go. I still like the list, though:

Amazing Grace Mary Hoffman Illustrated by Caroline Binch. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. The classic picture book about the little girl who loves stories and shows us that we can be anything we want to be.

Fruits: A Caribbean Counting Poem, Valerie Bloom Illustrated by David Axtell. Macmillan Children’s Books. A rhythmic counting poem that describes all manner of delicious Caribbean fruits as a little girl tries to eat as many of these as she can in a single day.

Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr, The Goggle-Eyed Goats

The Goggle-Eyed Goats, Stephen Davies Illustrated by Christopher Corr. Andersen Press. A vibrant and colourfully illustrated tale about Old Al Haji Amadu’s five extremely naughty and very hungry goats who gobble and gulp through whatever they find.

Handa’s Surprise, Eileen Browne. Walker Books. A mouth-watering story about Ayeko who puts seven fruits into her basket, but one by one these disappear as all manner of creatures snack upon them.

Hue Boy, Rita Phillips Mitchell Illustrated by Caroline Binch. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books As much as Hue Boy longs to be bigger, he discovers size isn’t everything in this uplifting village-based story about a small boy with a very big personality.

Leon and Bob, Simon James. Walker Books. A quiet reflective book about the unusual friendship shared by Leon and Bob and the sense of fun and fulfilment others can bring into our lives.

Not So Fast Songololo, Niki Daly. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.
An African town is brought to life through sight and sound in this touching story of young and old where Grandmother Gogo and grandson Songololo set out on a stroll together.

Over the Hills and Far Away, Elizabeth Hammill Illustrated by 77 artists. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. A stunning collection of 150 rhymes from countries all over the English-speaking world, including Great Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa and the Caribbean compiled by Seven Stories co-founder Elizabeth Hammill. The collection contains best-loved nursery rhymes, but also new discoveries, and vibrant rhymes from Native American, First Nation, Inuit and Maori cultures.

Ramadan Moon, Na’ima B. Robert Illustrated by Shirin Adl. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books The festival of Ramadan and its celebration across the world is explored in this thoughtful book which looks at the role faith plays in many children’s lives.

Rastamouse and the Crucial Plan, Michael De Souza Illustrated by Genevieve Webster. Little Roots. A cheeky, cheese-filled tale about super bad thief Bandalulu who has stolen all the cheese from Mouseland.

So Much, Trish Cooke Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury Walker Books. A fun, feel-good and familiar story about the different generations of a family brought together by their love for a new baby.

Where’s Lenny? Ken Wilson-Max Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. An ideal first picture book by an award winning author/illustrator in which Lenny and his dad have a game of hide and seek in the house, enjoying fun and games together.

Azzi In Between, Sarah Garland. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. A powerful graphic novel about Azzi and her family who seek refuge, filled with drama and tension it shows just how dangerous some people’s home lives can be and the difficult decisions needed to reach a place of safety.

Betsey Biggalow is here, Malorie Blackman Illustrated by Jamie Smith. Random House Children’s Books. Somewhere between Pippi Longstocking and Tracy Beaker, Betsey Biggalow, who stars in these short, pacey stories, is an imaginative and enquiring girl who is sometimes mischievous but always endearing.

The Colour of Home, Mary Hoffman Illustrated by Karin Littlewood. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. Hassan feels out of place in a cold, grey country so different from his colourful Somalian home, which he was forced to leave because of war. But gradually things change… and he sees the new colours of home.

Fly, Eagle, Fly! Christopher Gregorowski Illustrated by Niki Daly. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. A story of fulfilment and freedom shown through the parable of the baby eagle who is reared with chickens. This simply told yet dramatic story from Africa will delight children everywhere and encourage them to “lift off and soar,” as Archbishop Tutu puts it in his foreword.

Wendy Meddour, A Hen in the Wardrobe

A Hen in the Wardrobe, Wendy Meddour. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.
This is a funny, heart-warming family story set in Britain and Algeria, with fascinating glimpses of traditional Berber culture and lots of colourful characters.

Kasia’s Surprise, Stella Gurney Illustrated by Petr Horacek. Walker Books. A moving and hope-filled book about Kasia and her mum who have moved to the UK from Poland, it looks at the importance of the people we are close to and the gradual acceptance of change.

Mirror, Jeannie Baker. Walker Books. Although thousands of miles apart, there are many similarities between the homes and daily routines for the two boys in this book, its minutely detailed illustrations inspire readers to see that, in spite of surface difference, there is often more similarity in our lives than might, at first, be recognised.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, John Steptoe. Puffin Children’s Books. This special book has a fairy-tale like charm as a King takes on the search for a wife. Mufaro has two daughters, one rude and mean and the other generous and thoughtful, which will win the hand of the King?

Number 1 Car Spotter, Atinuke. Walker Books. A witty story about the hugely appealing Number 1 who sets about searching for and solving problems and carrying out chores for his family.

Under the Moon and Over the Sea: A Collection of Caribbean Poems, ed John Agard and Grace Nichols. Walker Books. A lyrical and lively collection of poetry that captures the sights, sounds, tastes and tales of the Caribbean and its people.

Walter Tull’s Scrap Book, Michaela Morgan. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. The inspirational true story of Walter Tull’s life is vividly reimagined here in scrapbook form, drawing on photographs, documents and records of his life. Born in Kent, in 1888, Walter Tull became not just the first black British professional outfield football player – for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town – but also the first black officer in the British Army.

Boy Overboard, Morris Gleitzman. Puffin Children’s Books. Jamal and sister Bibi want to lead Australia to victory in the World Cup, but that entails a journey from their homeland, Afghanistan where their family has upset the authorities, and a lengthy voyage overseas.

The Island, Armin Greder. Allen & Unwin Books for Children & Young Adults. The poignancy of the pictures in this story about a man washed up on an island beach and outcast by its community explores intolerance and is a powerful and moving conversation starter for discussions around acceptance.

Journey to Jo’Burg, Beverley Naidoo. Macmillan Children’s Books. A deeply affecting modern classic about a brother and sister who journey through the South Africa of Apartheid in a race against time to find their mother thereby saving their poorly baby sister, Dineo.

The Life of Stephen Lawrence, Verna Allette Wilkins Illustrated by Lynne Willey. Tamarind. Full of life and potential, Stephen Lawrence was a boy with huge hopes for the future. Murdered in 1993, the book looks at prejudice, injustice and a family’s fight to uncover the truth.

Little Leap Forward, Guo You Illustrated by Clare Farrow. Barefoot Books. This semi-autobiographical tale looks at Little Leap Forward, a boy who grew up in the hutongs of Beijing during the Cultural Revolution in China.

Oranges in No Man’s Land, Elizabeth Laird. Macmillan Children’s Books.
Ayesha lives in war-torn Beirut, a city divided by conflict. When Ayesha’s granny falls ill, she must cross the barricades into deadly no-man’s land to try to get the medication that is so badly needed.

A Nest of Vipers, Catherine Johnson. Random House Children’s Books. The youngest member of a collective of pick pockets and con-artists in 18 Century London, Cato Hopkins appears at risk of paying penance for his crimes with his life…

Talking Turkeys , Benjamin Zephaniah. Puffin Children’s Books.
A thought provoking and wide reaching collection of poetry for children that explodes from the page, begging to be read aloud.

Tall Story, Candy Gourlay. David Fickling Books. Quirky, unusual and filled with affectionate humour, this story looks at the relationship between Andi, who is short, and her long lost, enormous half-brother Bernardo who comes to live in London from the Philippines.

Too Much Trouble, Tom Avery. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. A fast-paced read about brothers Em and Prince who struggle to make a life and home for themselves on the streets of London. Winner of the Diverse Voices award 2010.

Trash, Andy Mulligan. David Fickling Books. Raphael is a dumpsite boy whose days are spent sifting through rubbish and whose nights are spent sleeping beside it. This deeply affecting story tells how one fateful moment – the discovery of a small leather bag – can radically change one’s fortunes…

The Trouble with Donovan Croft, Bernard Ashley. Oxford University Press. Children’s Books Keith’s new foster brother, Donovan, won’t speak to anybody, will Keith be able to uncover the reasons why and help Donovan to open up?

The Unforgotten Coat, Frank Cottrell Boyce. Walker Books. This acutely perceptive, gem of a book recounts how Julie tries to help two Mongolian refugees who are struggling to fit in with their new classmates in Liverpool and movingly describes why their friendship ended unexpectedly…

Jamila Gavin, The Wheel of Surya

The Wheel of Surya, Jamila Gavin. Egmont. The violence and danger of India during the Independence movement and its partition from Pakistan acts a catalyst for Jaspal and Marvinder to flee from their village in an effort to reunite with their father who is a student in England.

Apache, Tanya Landman. Walker Books. Following the vicious murder of her brother, orphan Siki vows to become an Apache warrior to take revenge upon her brother, Tazhi’s, killers.

The Arrival, Shaun Tan. Hodder Children’s Books. This wordless graphic novel explores the many reasons that lead people to leave their old lives and homes behind and set out upon the journey entailed in starting afresh.

Artichoke Hearts, Sita Brahmachari. Macmillan Children’s Books. Aged twelve, Mira’s life changes when her Nana Josie becomes ill and Mira begins to learn about the secrets of her family and loved ones in this emotionally honest novel.

Blood Donors, Steve Tasane. Walker Books. A skin-crawling novel about Marshall O’Connor who lives in the ‘Finger’ a block of flats with a deep, dark and deadly secret. This distinctive, fresh and decidedly creepy novel explores stigma and prejudice.

The Breadwinner, Deborah Ellis. Oxford University Press Children’s Books.
Kept house-bound by the Taliban’s law that women and girls should not leave the house on their own, Parvana, her mother and sisters are in danger of starvation when their father is arrested.

Half-Caste & Other Poems, John Agard. Hodder Children’s Books. The poems in this highly original collection, penned by John Agard uncover a wealth of human experience and on differences in race.

Moonfleece, Philip Ridley. Methuen. A playscript that explores the tensions between two groups of teenagers who come to learn the way party politics influence the everyday lives of individuals and the devastating impact this can have.

Noughts and Crosses, Malorie Blackman. Random House Children’s Books. Sephy and Callum live in a world of split communities and civil unrest, can their feelings for one another grow and blossom against this backdrop and what will occur if those feelings are discovered?

Palestine, Joe Sacco. Jonathan Cape. An extraordinary piece of current affairs reportage told in graphic novel form and recounting the conflict in the West Bank and Gaza strip.

Persepolis 1 & 2, Marjane Satrapi. Vintage. This eye-opening graphic novel about author Marjane Satrapi’s childhood growing up in Tehran uncovers the way a country’s politics, religion, history and traditions, influence a sense of identity.

Refugee Boy, Benjamin Zephaniah. Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Thrilled to have left his home country of Ethiopia for the first time, Alem is excited to be spending a holiday with his father in London. Happiness turns to despair when he discovers his father has left him alone in an unfamiliar country…

(Un)arranged Marriage, Bali Rai. Random House Children’s Books. This highly personal story was partly influenced by Bali Rai’s own experiences, it looks at the impact cultural traditions can have on young people growing up in modern times and the book will resonate will all who have experienced the pressure of expectation at the hands of their family.

The Weight of Water, Sarah Crossan. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Poetic and reflective, the story tells how Kasienka comes to England from Gdansk in Poland with her mother, a suitcase and a laundry bag full of clothes, desperate to search for her father.

I shall have to magic up some extra reading time for a few more of these. I strongly suspect none of the books have wizards or vampires in them. (Although, I would – obviously – welcome corrections from my well informed readers on this.)

Sorry for copying in the whole list. I simply felt it was important. And it made me feel better, after not having been able to join many of the authors on the list at the Guardian’s HQ on Monday.

Skulduggery Pleasant – The Dying of the Light

The people at Volvo might want to sue, but the rest of us will be more than happy with the last of Skulduggery Pleasant. Because I take it this really is the end. It’s been a good seven and a bit years, except for those who died. There were a lot of people dying here. Painfully, mostly, and often unnecessarily. It’s what we like.

The tenth book in this nine-book series had to reveal whether what we’d been seeing all this time would come true or not. We have ‘known’ what Darquesse aka Valkyrie would do to end the world. It’s confusing when you have two people the same, but different. Add the reflection, and you have three. And was that a fourth Stephanie Edgley, in Colorado?

Derek Landy has kept this up magnificently. The relationship between Skulduggery and Stephanie/Valkyrie has remained as fun and interesting as it ever was. You enjoy their banter so much you almost wish it was you, until you remember that there’d be a lot of pain and death and danger and suffering if you were. Hmm, better not be them. Probably.

So, the end of the world. It’s coming. Will anyone survive? Well, I’m obviously not going to tell you.

I like the Edgleys. All three brothers are quite fun, when it comes down to it. I like that. There were more ‘Aunt Petunia’ moments in The Dying of the Light, and it’s good when people turn out to have more than one side to them.

Most of the characters in here have plenty of sides. They keep changing their sides and their allegiances the way some people change socks. I’ve never wanted to be Valkyrie, but always Tanith. However, I’ve grudgingly come to the realisation that I’m more Vaurien Scapegrace than anyone else… Sigh.

Seven years is a long time in the lives of young people. I hope most readers have remained fans for the duration. The reader in Year 7 back then has just gone off to university. Will he feel that The Dying of the Light is as much fun now as the first books was?

Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant - The Dying of the Light

This looks pretty bleak, doesn’t it? I mean, for a fun book.