Category Archives: Reading

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.

Night Runner

Tim Bowler’s latest book, Night Runner, is absolutely normal, by which I mean it’s got none of the supernatural that he is so well known for. It was almost a relief. Sometimes I’d rather be scared by ordinary decent mean-ness than by the inexplicable.

And you certainly are in this book. Tim has come up with some really nasty characters in Night Runner.

Tim Bowler, Night Runner

Zinny knows his parents are involved – probably separately – in some funny business. He just doesn’t know quite what. His mum seems to be having an affair, and his dad is never at home, and when he is, he is violent. Not popular at school, Zinny has no one to turn to when things go even more wrong.

Not that he would, anyway. And I think that’s what this thriller is about; the fact that teenagers don’t necessarily share the bad stuff that happens to them with anyone, even if they have a sympathetic headteacher. Instead they attempt to sort things out on their own, and end up in a worse pickle than before.

This happens to Zinny. The wrong people tell him to do things, or else.

In the end you almost agree with poor Zinny; things are so bad that it won’t matter if the worst happens. Almost.

Very, very exciting, and without a ghost of a ghost.

The Piper

No sooner had I been scared by Rachel Ward in Water Born, than I started on Danny Weston’s first book, The Piper, also featuring horrible and inexplicable deaths and water. (Maybe there’s something in the water?)

Danny Weston, The Piper

So instead of a cosy, ‘ordinary’ WWII story, Danny gave me the creeps. Which is fine. The Piper is a really exciting book. Just not one where you feel it’s going to end well and all will be fine, because it’s a children’s book, and how horrible can it be? Really?

It’s about two siblings, Peter and Daisy, who are evacuated at the beginning of September 1939. They travel to Rye, and are eventually taken in by a farmer and his housekeeper (I kept seeing an uncouth Mrs Danvers) near Romney Marsh. Daisy is to be company for Mr Sheldon’s daughter Sally.

There is something odd about Sally. Daisy’s room is full of her dolls, and Peter has to sleep in the attic, far away from his little sister. And he had promised their mother to look after her.

The children can hear strange music at night, and it keeps getting louder. Daisy wants to go out and dance when she hears it…

Peter has a real struggle on his hands trying to keep Daisy safe. The people in the house as well as the hired hand all attempt to keep him away, while Daisy spends time with Sally. He accidentally finds out some historical facts about what’s happened on the farm over the last hundred years, and he becomes even more worried. But he’s just a child himself.

So, what do you think happens? Read The Piper, and you’ll find out.

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.

Water Born

Water Born is the sequel to Rachel Ward’s The Drowning, and when I read it, at first I thought I’d gone mad. Were her characters really called Clarke and Sarita?

Rachel Ward, Water Born

No, they were not. You’ll find out why as you read on. Water Born is about their daughter Nic, who loves swimming. That also didn’t feel right for Carl and Neisha, considering what happened in The Drowning. But it, too, has an explanation.

Like the first book, this is pretty scary stuff. It’s obviously fantasy (it is, isn’t it?), so you can’t use logic to work out what is happening to Nic and all those teenage girls who are drowning. Or why things are strange whenever Nic swims.

As always with Rachel, this is so compelling you feel you must continue reading. Clarke is older and wiser now, but still as temperamental. At least when he gets scared. And if he‘s scared, what about the poor reader?

Set in 2030, society appears to be the same as it is today, so it’s really our current values we see in the reactions from the people around Nic when things turn bad. Her parents are OK, apart from their water hang-ups, and she has one very resourceful friend when the world turns on the family.

Read with caution if you aren’t very comfortable with water. Or even if you are. You never know.

A few words from the ambassador

The last week in November will yet again be Book Week Scotland. I was going to say a few things about it, but have found out that the week has its own ambassadors, and here is one of them to tell you about the grand launch last Wednesday, and about her love for libraries. Over to Helen Grant:

Helen Grant

“When I heard that the launch event for Book Week Scotland 2014 was going to be at a boxing gym in Edinburgh, I naively assumed that the boxing gym had a conference room and the launch would be in that (I’m not sure why I had this mad thought; I don’t suppose boxers pause from boxing each other to have management meetings). But no! It was far more interesting than that! I arrived at the gym to find that the boxing ring was full of Scottish book characters, all vying for the ‘favourite’ spot! In fact, Peter Pan was slugging it out with Sherlock Holmes at that very moment. Many well-loved characters were there, ranging from Badger to Harry Potter and Hit Girl.

FREE TO USE - BOOK WEEK SCOTLAND 2014 LAUNCH

After a particularly dynamic photo call, we sat down and listened to Sophie Moxon of the Scottish Book Trust talk about Book Week Scotland’s 2014 programme, followed by Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop, who demonstrated support at the highest level! Amongst this year’s highlights are plans to give books to every P1 child in Scotland and to distribute 150,000 free copies of Scotland’s Stories of Home, a collection of short stories and poems written by Scottish people. Plus there is the chance to settle the question of who is the most popular Scottish book character by voting at http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/reading/book-week-scotland/vote-for-your-favourite-character-from-a-scottish-book. I’m still trying to make my mind up. I’m a bit of a traditionalist, but I can’t decide between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde!

FREE TO USE - BOOK WEEK SCOTLAND 2014 LAUNCH

Then it was the turn of the Author Ambassadors to take the stage. The theme of this year’s Book Week Scotland is love, so we had each written a love letter to our favourite library. Paul Cuddihy kicked off with an appreciative epistle to Bishopbriggs library, with which he evidently had a very long term relationship in spite of the rival lures of the local pub!

I felt rather abashed when I got up after him, and had to confess that due to having moved around a lot, I am a bit of a library philanderer, with a hoard of expired library cards that I keep as carefully as old love letters. However I did promise to change my fickle ways, and settle down with the one, for which role I nominated Strathearn Community Library in Crieff.

My relationship with the library shows that a community library is more than just a collection of books. If you have lived all over the place as I have, it is difficult to feel at home anywhere, but the day I found my husband’s birth announcement in an ancient and yellowing copy of the Crieff Herald in the library’s local history section, was the day that I felt we had come home.

Shari Low’s love letter to Renfrew library was touching and hilarious, especially when she described some of the scurrilous books by Jackie Collins and the like that she had relished in former years.

I’m thrilled to be one of the 2014 Author Ambassadors. Our role is to spread the word about Book Week Scotland and trumpet out the love for libraries and reading. Books have been such a big part of my life. I can remember which ones I was reading during some of the most exciting adventures I have ever had, and the ones that cheered me up and kept me going during the worst times.

Here is one of the most important things I had to say to Strathearn Community Library in my love letter:

‘The thing I love most about you is not the modern stuff. It’s the local history section, over in the back corner. Because I’m new to this part of the world, I don’t have a past here. I’m finding out about my new home, just as I would ask a new friend all about their life before we met. You have so much to tell me! Folk stories, curious little snippets of history, amazing ancedotes of past lives.

One of my favourites is the tale of John Steedman, the timorous minister of Auchterarder during the Jacobite rising of 1715, who was too afraid to preach while the Rebel Army were in the neighbourhood. William Reid, the minister of Dunning, who was made of sterner stuff, swapped with him, and for several weeks gave the sermon at Auchterarder armed with a loaded pistol!

I love that story. It makes eighteenth century Perthshire sound like the Wild West! I found that tale in a very old book. Thank you for keeping books like that safe, so that history stays alive, and we can read about more than just the big national events.’

Libraries are a treasure trove, and I’d love to encourage people to use them and get the most out of them.”

There will be many events, and I’ll let you know as and when I have any news or firsthand tales to tell. Or I suppose I’ll have to keep feeding ‘my’ ambassador plenty of chocolate. (Although I’m sure that Mr Grant isn’t old enough to have had his birth announced in an ‘ancient’ copy of the Crieff Herald, in the library’s local history department… I mean, where would that leave me?)