Monthly Archives: November 2012


I love Jeanne Willis’s books! Hippospotamus, which unsurprisingly has illustrations by Tony Ross, is quite a mature picture book for small children.

You could easily take it at face value; that it’s about a Hippo who discovers a puzzling spot on her behind. Hippo goes round listening to the advice of her friends, who all ‘know’ what the spot is. Except it isn’t.

But if you happen to spot (sorry) the dedication, ‘may all our lumps and bumps be this benign’ the adult reader will start looking at the book in a different light. Because most of us have probably been there, in some form or other. The worry is real, and not just for laughs. Friends are good, but not always right.

‘Hippopotamus had a spotamus… on her bottomus.’

It’s wonderful. The rhymes are most poetic, and this would be a fun book to read out loud, as long as you don’t have a worrying spotamus on your body.

Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Hippospotamus


Four Children and It

Edith Nesbit and I have a slight problem. I loved her books once I had discovered them in my childhood library, but I don’t think I ever owned one. And that’s probably why I can’t remember much. Some I do know I read, others I am no longer sure whether it’s because I know the title (which would have been different in translation, anyway) due to Nesbit’s books being so well known, or if I did read them.

I am almost certain I read Five Children and It. But can I recall a name for the Psammead? No, I can’t.

Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It was inspired by Nesbit’s story, rather than being a modern sequel, which is A Good Thing. Some sequels are fine, but this is much better for being a typical Jacqueline Wilson, borrowing the Psammead and – temporarily – Nesbit’s child characters. So don’t read it if you crave more Nesbit.

What I am hoping is that JW fans will now want to read Nesbit’s books, and perhaps also other old classics. The wish to share something with someone you admire is a great way to try new paths.

We have a modern setting of two siblings, Rosalind and Robbie, being forced to spend part of their holiday with their Dad and his new family, with (horrible) stepsister Smash and their halfsister Maudie. On a picnic they encounter (well, dig up) the Psammead, and Rosalind the reader recognises him, and the children end up asking him for wishes.

Much to the parents’ consternation they end up having picnics every day, and disappearing on wishes. Some good, some pretty bad.

They meet Nesbit’s original children, and they meet Jacqueline’s PA Naomi. They didn’t ask for that one, but she does play herself rather nicely in one wish, along with Bob the chauffeur. (I bet she doesn’t ever need to wipe JW off with wet wipes, though…)

Eventually the children learn to like each other, and get on rather better than they did at first. And we learn to be careful what you ask for. You might get it.


It was just by coincidence I noticed the article about Noor Inayat Khan on the Talking Cranes’ website a few months ago. I felt it was intriguing with a female Indian spy during WWII, and thought I might blog about her at some point, but then never did.

Noor Inayat Khan

I was aware there was a collection for some kind of memorial, and I suspect it was not by chance that the bust was unveiled by the Princess Royal in time for Remembrance Sunday.

Noor spoke perfect French, which is why she was sent to France with the SOE. Unfortunately she was captured fairly soon after arrival, and executed by the Germans. So many lives and so much talent lost.

It was only by more chance reading that I found out Noor also wrote stories. Her Twenty Jataka Tales appears to be out of print at the moment, but could be worth looking out for.

Your granny or mine?

I was offered to share someone’s grandparents on facebook on Sunday. It was very kind. As ‘everyone’ mentioned their grandparents and the war on Sunday morning, I felt a little left out. More so than normal, because I have no such memories to share.

Bookwitch and Morfar

Of course, that’s something to be grateful for. No one in my family went to war and suffered. The most exciting thing I know about WWII and my family is that Mother-of-witch gave up sugar in her coffee, because of the rationing, and how she had a slight accident walking home in the dark one night, due to the black-out.

Uncle and Aunt I-L

And Uncle spent some time in uniform, somewhere in the north in preparation for an invasion. Luckily that never happened, but since both Norway and Denmark were invaded, the threat was real enough. There were also enough German soldiers inside Sweden to cause concern.

But apart from the dark and the rationing, life was fairly normal. And for my grandparents, even food wasn’t too much of a problem, as they had relatives who farmed and who sent extra food.

Mother-of-witch was a teenager when WWII broke out, but thinking about it now, I realise that her siblings would have gone to war in some form, had war come to Sweden. They were much older.


Whereas my grandparents were far too old by then, and it would have been WWI they’d have fought in, had the country been at war. So thinking that thought through, perhaps my grandfather would have gone to war and died. In which case I wouldn’t be here now. Except he had been invalided at work, and since he worked on the railways, he would presumably have continued there, instead of being a soldier.

I know that where I used to work before emigrating, I would have stayed ‘on my post’ in case of war. Any involvement with voluntary military organisations was prohibited, as we’d be required to do what we were already doing. One colleague who did do airforce volunteering, was told to keep quiet about it. I suppose the threat of war wasn’t seen as very great.

And – I’m almost ashamed to admit this – in Sweden Remembrance Sunday this year was actually Father’s Day… More a case of unwanted ties and cake, than poppies and memories.

Secrets and Shadows

Neutral Ireland tends to be overlooked when we talk about WWII, or maybe even forgotten. I remember reading Joan Lingard’s The File on Fraulein Berg which, although set in Belfast, still brought home the enormous difference between north and south of the border. The fact that they had lights on in Dublin, and things to buy in the shops.

Joan’s book was about two girls who thought the German teacher at their school had to be a spy. Brian Gallagher’s Secrets and Shadows is almost the same, in a way. Set in Dublin, Liverpudlian refugee Barry and the local but nevertheless bombed-out Grace, suspect Barry’s Polish PE teacher of being a spy. The man asks too many questions, and is simply too pleasant.

Brian Gallagher, Secrets and Shadows

This is a good story, showing the effects of the war in Liverpool, explaining why Barry ends up going to live with his grandmother in Dublin, and also that being in Ireland wasn’t always totally safe, because bombings did happen. Grace and her mum have to live with her grandfather, which is how the two children meet and become friends.

Then there is the spy chase, where Grace and Barry take to observing and following Mr Pawlek, and finally breaking into his house (which is far too big for one man).

The question is whether they find anything to prove their suspicions, or if they have made a mistake. Very exciting, and as I said, just that little bit different for being an Irish story. Nice piece of time travel too, seeing how people lived then.


I couldn’t help noticing that Thomas Keneally has a new book out about WWI, about two sisters who are nurses. It’d be easy to think that this is a bit of a cliché, because so many WWI novels feature nurses. But that’s what you have to have, if you’re going to put your female characters in Europe during the war.

Theresa Breslin, Remembrance

I’d already dug out some of my WWI nurse books, because it’s time to remember that they exist. It’s not a topic I’d expect to find in new books right now, but it’s not as if these are all that ancient.

Linda Newbery, Some Other War

My first one was Linda Newbery’s Some Other War, which I bought as it was re-issued about ten years ago, although first published in the early 1990s. Linda came to Offsprings’ school, just before Remembrance Sunday, so very timely. She introduced me to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, also about a nurse.

Linda has two more books about the same characters; The Kind Ghosts, which starts during the war and ends after it. The third book is The Wearing of the Green, set in Ireland. After this I always get confused, because I tend to think her Shouting Wind trilogy is set in WWI. It isn’t. It’s one war later, about a descendant of the two main characters in Some Other War. So that’s two sets of trilogies about the same family, over many years.

The second nurse story is Theresa Breslin’s Remembrance, which Linda strongly recommended. Similar plot, in a way, with girls going off to war as nurses, and with a love story somewhere, as well as being about the village left behind. Realistic, and enjoyable, if you can say that about so much suffering.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Foreshadowing

My third nurse is only pretending. Marcus Sedgwick’s The Foreshadowing has a female character who is too young to go to war, and she’s not a trained nurse. She has ‘only’ dabbled a bit at nursing at home, before she runs off to Europe, hoping to save her brother’s life. She can ‘see’ things, and she has seen her brother’s death in her mind. With one brother already dead, she’s desperate not to lose her other brother as well.

So, there are similarities, but only because the war was fought in a limited geographical area, and the nursing of soldiers won’t vary much. We are now a long way away in time, but through these books it’s possible to feel something of what it was like.

We have no soldiers left to talk about it, but we mustn’t forget.

Bookwitch bites #92

Thank goodness for these bites where I can complain on a variety of subjects almost every week. Occasionally I have lovely news as well. Let’s see if I can find some.

I don’t often (like never, obviously) receive invitations from the Canadian High Commission in London, but this week I had to make myself say ‘no thanks’ to them. But as Disney’s Cinderella says, what could possibly be nice about a visit to Canada House? (Only all of it…)

Came across the programme for Book Week Scotland at the end of November. Can’t go, even though I can be found north of the border that very week. So no Frank Cottrell Boyce. No Debi Gliori and no Steve Cole. Nobody.

Offspring are my reasons for travelling, and Son had some news this week, relating to the literal translation he did earlier this year. We are finally able to say it was Strindberg, for the Donmar at Trafalgar Studios. The Dance of Death. Will get back to you on that.

Before leaving Scotland, let me just mention the Grampian Children’s Book Award 2013. Apart from Patrick Ness who is on every single shortlist these days, the shortlisted authors are Barry Hutchison, Cathy MacPhail, Mark Lowery, Dave Cousins and Annabel Pitcher. Tough competition.

South to Newcastle, where the good news is that Seven Stories can call themselves National Centre for Children’s Books, as the only ‘national’ place in the Northeast. Well done to a special place!

Launch of Jacqueline Wilson exhibition at Seven Stories

Actually, I am coping with the happy business, after all. We’ll finish with a decisive jump across the water to Ireland, where they have The Irish Book Awards. You can vote, but you might want to follow my example and only vote in categories (they have so many!) where you have read the books. Luckily I didn’t have to choose between Declan Burke and Adrian McKinty. Not quite so lucky with Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy, though.

A witch can always flip a coin.