Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Secret Railway

Ella is a little girl in Wendy Meddour’s new book The Secret Railway, and she Loves things. She just does, whatever it is. Almost.

And I just Love Wendy Meddour. She writes such funny and clever books. In this case for children aged 5+ (according to what it says on the back). But it’s equally good for witches who are, well, let’s say, slightly older than that. I really, really enjoyed this story about a brother and sister who discover a secret railway next to their new house.

Wendy Meddour and Sam Usher, The Secret Railway

They go out to explore and find themselves in another world, where there are nasty clockwork things, made by Griselda, who married the King. There is a poor Prince who needs help, and who better than Leo and Ella?

Leo is a lovely nine-year-old boy who knows what brothers have to do. They have to follow their little sisters, no matter where those sisters go, to make sure she is all right and to bring her safely home again. Pure little gent.

Did I say this is a lovely little book? It is. And I strongly suspect there will be more, so we can read again about the ghastly Griselda and the Prince and maybe Ella can find more things to Love.

(Illustrations by Sam Usher)


Old enough

I quite like this quote, from C S Lewis.

C S Lewis quote

I’m pretty old, but am I old enough?

I’ll fail if I want to!

What is failure?

Some years ago I chatted to a neighbour, and told her about something I’d tried to do, or intended to do (I forget the exact details), but hadn’t quite managed. So I cheerfully said ‘I failed!’

‘Oh no, don’t say that!’ she cried. And I asked why, since it’s what happened. I wondered if it was so unacceptable not to have done whatever it was I hadn’t managed to do, that she had to react like that.

I was really puzzled and needed to investigate why I couldn’t say this. It was what we were talking about, and the circumstances required me to mention the – lack of – result. In the end we had to spend far too much time for my liking discussing the actual word.

To fail. It turned out that for her, failure was such a serious, end-of-the-world word that it upset her deeply. You should never say you failed.

But to me it was merely a word that described that the thing I set out to do wasn’t successful. Lots of things aren’t, and it’s still not the end of the world. No matter which word I used, the level of success remained the same.

She calmed down after a while, realising I wasn’t telling her about the most dreadful thing that ever happened to me; instead simply mentioning a certain lack of success.

It’s sort of interesting, how much – or how little – emotional value people put on one word.

In the children’s department

You know when you have to cover for someone else, with little or no prior warning? You sort of know what you are supposed to do, but not quite, and it’s hard to know whether what you encounter is the norm – or not – in that other place.

I have mentioned this Swedish blogger before. She’s a librarian, but doesn’t usually work in the children’s department. Usually.

This time she had to cover, because there was no one else. And how hard can it be?

There was the boy, aged about six, sitting alone, holding a tiny baby. Where was the parent? (Seemingly, toilet visit with yet another small child.)

Noisy impromptu theatre performance from a few children, where the wolf ate both Little Red Riding Hood and at least one princess. Ought the librarian to ask them to be quieter?

Little boy screaming as he fell off the chair behind the information desk. Probably not hurt so much as surprised.

Quiet older children playing board games in the teen corner.

A father on his mobile phone, on speaker phone, talking very loudly.

And then the same father trying to borrow a whole pile of picture books with and for his four-year-old son. The boy expertly showed his useless dad how one checks out books in a library. The dad was certain they’d missed one, but his son said no, showing him the receipt he had printed out, proving that the little boy was right.

I love that!

The librarian fell asleep on the bus home and missed her stop. (You have to be used to these things.)

Platform with a view

Stirling station and the Ochils

I’m letting Stirling’s ‘silly bridge’ as the Grandmother used to call it, illustrate what the view might be as you leave town. Well, if you leave by train.

This time I’m planning to be up in the air, but couldn’t resist showing you this photo which I took on my way to London two weeks ago. With a view like that, even a witch with a wobbly mobile phone can get it right.

I did ponder waiting until ‘next time’ but realised that it could be quite a while before I’d be in that spot, with such good weather and such a clear view, that I’d be an idiot not to do it right then.

I decided not to be an idiot.

Bon voyage. I hope.

White Lies, Black Dare

The little girl inside me had to be dragged kicking and screaming to read Joanna Nadin’s new book, White Lies, Black Dare. The witch on the outside knew it was going to be just as marvellous a book as it turned out to be, but the little scaredy cat could visualise herself at the centre of a dare at school, involving the ‘bad’ girls, and how a young and innocent new girl would end up in the middle of something awful before she knew what had happened.

I hate dares!

But as you read, you discover that Asha (that’s the new innocent) is actively seeking out those other girls, because she wants to be one of the gang, and she’ll do anything to prove it.

Joanna Nadin, White Lies, Black Dare

In fact, Asha does the opposite of what I would have done, in just about every situation. She doesn’t want to be friends with the safe Patience, and she has no intention of behaving well for the English teacher who sees someone like himself in her. Nor does Asha even mention that her mum is ill with cancer, or admit that she’s friends with Joe (from Joanna’s last book).

So Asha does the dares, alienating just about everyone around her, because she wants to be in with Angel (!) and her friend.

White Lies, Black Dare is tremendously well written. It’s as if the words just flow off the page as you read. And that’s despite the dares, and despite the formerly privately educated Asha strewing plenty of ‘innits’ around. And despite my fears.


3, 2, 1… Draw!

Who doesn’t want to draw in books?

I can still remember the secret thrill of doing just that, many years ago. Either hoping to improve some of the existing artwork, or playing libraries, and ‘having to’ draw the library stamps…

Serge Bloch, 3, 2, 1... Draw!

Well, in 3, 2, 1… Draw! by Serge Bloch you can. It’s – almost – the whole purpose of his picture book. An invitation to draw clothes peg crocodiles, book covers, scary eyes, or anything else that tickles your fancy.

Serge Bloch, 3, 2, 1... Draw!

Serge provides photographs of all sorts of things from tomatoes and conkers to prickly pot plants and empty picture frames. He has then drawn suggestions for what you might want to draw yourself, so you can either copy his crazy ideas, or you come up with even better ones and draw them instead.

It’s very tempting.

I can see one drawback to a book that gives you permission to do those forbidden things, however. It might give you a taste for more, and before you know it, you’ll be merrily drawing away in any old book you find.

But that’s between you and your mother.

The Secret Stories

How can I have imagined – and then forgotten – a whole series of books by Enid Blyton? Especially as it appears they were never translated. Please tell me I’m not crazy.

I adored Enid Blyton’s book’s and I read every one that I could lay my hands on. There is nothing like a first love, and hers were the first ‘real’ books I read; ones with only words and chapters, and no pictures.

Looking at the books from my British vantage point, I see that the titles I remember are not always what you’d expect them to be in English. Nor are the characters necessarily called by their original names. And apart from the Famous Five, and to some extent the Adventure series, I have only a hazy recollection of the books, where once I could have listed every member of the Secret Seven.

But now Hodder are re-publishing The Secret Stories. Four of them were out in January and I have just been sent one, The Secret Island.

Enid Blyton, The Secret Island

I began by thinking it was a nice cover, although not in the slightest how I feel this old book should be portrayed. And then I thought ‘hang on, I don’t know this book!’ It’s Blyton’s first, originally published in a magazine in 1937-1938. I was OK with this, feeling there must be plenty of books that never made it across the North Sea.

So I started leafing through the book, to see if any bells rang. The names of the children sounded totally alien. Peggy, Mike, Nora and Jack. I never knew any children like that! Except, I did recall a Jack (I know, there’s another Jack).

The beginning didn’t feel right. But as I read up on the plot and its development I definitely remembered it. I boldly cheated and went to the end to see what would happen, and I’m dead certain I’ve read that. Both what Jack did, and what happened to him.

Once I’d got that far, I started Googling and looked on Wikipedia, in both languages. It doesn’t exist in Swedish.

So how can I remember it?

Imaginary and unwanted

It’s a bit awkward being an imaginary friend and not be adopted by a real child. Beekle in Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend, was born where imaginary friends come from, and like all the rest of them he waited for his human to claim him as their imaginary friend.

Dan Santat, The Adventures of Beekle, The Unimaginary Friend

But nothing happened. Many of the others were found and went away to their children.

Beekle decided to take things into his own hands and sailed away from his imaginary world to the real world, which turned out to be nowhere near as exciting as he’d imagined. And still he didn’t find his child.

Eventually, though, as tends to happen in picture books, he did meet his real friend. They were awkward with each other until they got used to the thought of the other one, and then they became great friends, doing all those crazy things a child and its imaginary friend will do.

Very lovely.

Bookwitch bites #135

Super-publicist Nina Douglas has got a new job. Or I could turn the statement around and say that Barrington Stoke have got themselves a new publicist. I’m really quite pleased to see such a top publicity person go to such an excellent publishing house. I imagine that they will now be able to propel those wonderful little books with the big content much further, to reach many more potential readers who need those stories.

Over at Booktrust, their current writer-in-residence, Phil Earle, is into vlogs. Here you can hear and see him talking to Tom Palmer about boys who don’t read (basically themselves, as neither of them were boys who read books), and it is a tremendously inspiring short chat. (It’s quite funny too, as both are wriggling and wiping their noses, and stuff, despite being quite grown-up…) So really, you can read magazines and newspapers, or websites. It doesn’t have to be books. It can even be a book about Leeds football club. It could make you into a reader, and in some cases, as with Phil and Tom, an author. Really great.

Someone who’s waited a long time to write his first novel, is David McCallum. Yes, Illya Kuryakin is a novelist at the age of 82. I have not read the book, unfortunately (would welcome a copy, you know…), but the excellent people at Crime Review managed to ask David a few questions (Facebook for Dummies? Really?) on the publication of Once a Crooked Man last month. Lucky them!

And finally, wishing plenty of luck for all who found themselves on the Carnegie longlist this week:

Book by John Agard (Walker Books)

A Song For Ella Grey by David Almond (Hodder)

One by Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury)

The Earth Is Singing by Vanessa Curtis (Usborne)

The Door That Led To Where by Sally Gardner (Hot Key Books)

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold (Bloomsbury)

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake (Bloomsbury)

We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Neilsen (Andersen Press)

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (Walker Books)

Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norriss (David Fickling Books)

Panther by David Owen (Little, Brown Book Group)

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett (Penguin Random House)

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders (Faber)

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick (Indigo)

Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton (David Fickling Books)

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (MiraInk, HarperCollins)

Fire Colour One by Jenny Valentine (HarperCollins)

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter (David Fickling Books)

Liccle Bit by Alex Wheatle (Atom Books)