Tag Archives: Kate DiCamillo

That’s funny

Much as I don’t enjoy the trend of famous comedians suddenly discovering that they need to write a children’s book, and doing very well and getting plenty of publisher attention for their efforts, it has caused one improvement to the state of things. Humour is now seen as something worth considering.

I have always liked humorous fiction. I have long felt there’s not enough of it, and also that it’s been so wrong to look down on it. As though humorous fiction is to children’s fiction as children’s fiction is to Booker prize type fiction; i.e. inferior.

It’s not. In fact, I’d suggest that just like writing for children requires more skill, and not less, to write good humour means you have to be really excellent at what you do. Not everyone can do it, or do it well, but when they can, the results can be spectacular.

A couple of weeks ago Adrian McKinty blogged about his twenty funniest novels and it’s an interesting list. I agree with his choice, about the ones I’ve read. I might have picked others, and it could be Adrian doesn’t find them funny, or that he’s not read the same books I have. These things happen.

I do agree with him about this, though: ‘It’s got be funny throughout too. One really funny scene as in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim for example just doesn’t cut it. I’m also not allowing anything that people say is funny but which actually isn’t or perhaps used to be funny but isn’t anymore. I’ve read Gargantua and Pantagruel and they are not funny. Shakespeare’s comedies are not funny. Dickens is not funny.’

There’s a lot in life that’s not funny. But there’s also a lot that is. And yes, I hated Lucky Jim the first time I read it. Loved it on the second read. But Adrian is right; one funny scene isn’t enough. (Apart from The Vicar Of Nibbleswicke, I don’t reckon Roald Dahl is funny. Not in that way.)

I’ve not thought this through enough so I can give you my own list, but Terry Pratchett is obviously on it. Would be, I mean, if there was a list. And even if I stick to children’s books, I reckon Douglas Adams has to be on it. From there it is a quick jump to Eoin Colfer and from him to many other Irish authors (it must be the water?), and then jump again, to Frank Cottrell Boyce, Joan Aiken, Morris Gleitzman, Debi Gliori, Barry Hutchison, Hilary McKay, Andy Mulligan, Kate DiCamillo. And last but not least, my fairy blogmother Meg Rosoff. She doesn’t only kill goats.

My apologies to anyone not mentioned. I didn’t go about this scientifically, but merely wanted to mention that being funny is a good thing. A good read is good for your wellbeing, and a funny read is even better. Go on, find something to make you laugh! Preferably until you cry. The hankies are on me.

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The 2016 best

Yes, there were good books, even in a year like 2016. Let’s not lose [all] hope, shall we? In fact, after careful consideration, there were more serious contenders than I could allow through to the final round. Sorry about that.

During 2016 I seem to have read and reviewed 154 books. Before you gasp with admiration, I should mention that 40 of those were picture books.

2016 books

And here, without me even peeping at other best of lists, are my favourites, in alphabetical order:

Beck, by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

Broken Sky + Darkness Follows, by L A Weatherly

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Five Hundred Miles, by Kevin Brooks

Front Lines, by Michael Grant

Knights of the Borrowed Dark, by Dave Rudden

More of Me, by Kathryn Evans

The White Fox, by Jackie Morris

I believe it’s a good list, and I’m glad that two of the books are dyslexia friendly; one at either end of the age spectrum.

And, you are human after all, so you want to know who just missed this list. I’m human enough to want to mention them. They were Hilary McKay, J K Rowling, Malcolm McNeill, G R Gemin, Jonathan Stroud, Kate DiCamillo and Philip Caveney.

Two dozen more on my longlist, and we mustn’t forget; if a book has been reviewed on Bookwitch at all, it has passed quite a few quality tests. So there. You’re all winners. But some are more winners than others.

I love you.

Is it safe out there?

Do we need our adults dead, and was everything safer in the past?

When I was reading Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale earlier this year, what I was thinking was how nice it is when the adults can remain alive. The children can go about their adventures anyway, because the adults will let them. Or won’t think to worry.

Just like in the past. Perhaps. Debi Gliori was saying in Edinburgh last month that her publisher required her to put her alphabet book in more historical times, just so the two children could go out on their own and have alphabet adventures all over the place.

So is it a modern problem?

In books contemporary with me, characters in boooks did what I did; they went out as and when they felt like it. More or less. In books set in much older times, characters have even more freedom, unless they are enslaved by the need to work for a living.

The question I have is how do today’s readers know? Do they think ‘hey, I could do that’ just because it’s a new book set in the here and now, or do they automatically think that they won’t, because the book is old and they can tell the difference? If I’m ten, do I know that a book is old? Do I look at dates for different editions, and change my behaviour accordingly? Or do I simply decide that climbing down a well seems like a really fun thing to do?

In Debi’s book they were not allowed to go kayaking, even if we pretended it was in the olden days. It had to be a pretend kayak on dry land. (The mind boggles were you to apply this to the Famous Five.)

I’m just back from Sweden, where children are a little freer than British children. I read a manuscript while there, featuring a girl, aged about ten, who goes out on her own when visiting her grandparents (OK, so the parents have been partially removed), and she ends up in the 1600s. She returns safely, but still. Had granny come along she probably would have stayed put in the 21st century.

And there would have been no story.

What year is the cut-off point for unaccompanied children, and is it a moving point? Is it realistic to have a year before which normal children were out alone, and after which they are accompanied at all times?

Raymie Nightingale

Every last little bit of detail mentioned in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale is put to good use before this sweet and funny book comes to an end. Based on previous books I knew it was going to be good, but was unsure how Kate would manage it [the sweet and funny ending] this time. No need for concern, as she knows how to write a book.

Kate DiCamillo, Raymie Nightingale

Set in the 1960s in Florida, ten-year-old Raymie has just lost her father, to a dental hygienist. She has worked out that by learning to twirl a baton she can get him back, which is why we find her having a rather failed baton-twirling lesson in chapter one.

What she does achieve in this lesson, is finding two new friends, both of whom also have needs that require dealing with. Together they set about breaking into a nursing home and rescuing a dead cat. Not at the same time, obviously.

This is very, very special, and I marvel at the mind of anyone who can come up with these ideas. The story benefits from having adult characters who don’t need to be killed off, as they are nicely quirky individuals with strong opinions of their own, fitting in well with the plot.

A most loveable squirtel

That should read squirrel, except his spelling isn’t totally perfect. But at least he types, so you can find out what Ulysses (that’s his name) is thinking. Which is more than you can say for Mary Ann, Flora’s mother’s favourite lamp. Does it type? No, it does not. Obviously.

Kate DiCamillo and K G Campbell, Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo – with the most adorable illustrations by K G Campbell – is about love (which is like a giant doughnut, with sprinkles). Or something.

It is virtually impossible to describe. There’s the dreadful shepherdess lamp. There are the neighbours, whose accident with a new hoover is almost the end of poor little Ulysses, the squirrel. But he rises from the ashes, I mean the hoover, and he is mightier than ever before. He is a super-squirrel.

Kate DiCamillo and K G Campbell, Flora & Ulysses

Flora Belle is actually quite a lonely girl, which will be why she takes so to the almost dead squirrel. Her father’s been kicked out and her mother loves her lamp, and writes romances.

I was most impressed with Flora’s poetry reading neighbour Mrs Tickham, aka Tootie. I’m happy when the most unlikely people become allies, and Tootie beats many unlikelies.

In short, Flora’s mother doesn’t care for Ulysses and wants him dead and gone. Flora and Tootie and a few more memorable characters try to keep him safe and happy. There are the doughnuts, the fierce cat, the charming doctor and Tootie’s temporarily blind great-nephew.

Flora & Ulysses is the best kind of middle grade (as I think they call it over there) book. You can’t guess where it is going, but you know it’s somewhere you want to go. Especially if there are typing squirtels involved.

(I began reading Flora & Ulysses on Monday; the day Bookwitch featured Linda Newbery’s latest book. It was also the day Kate DiCamillo won her second Newbery medal, for this perfect little squirrel book. I like patterns.)

Walker Books and a witch with wet hands

As usual it was a case of waving your hands (or in this case, my hands) under the drier for absolutely forever, wipe them on your clothes, or go wet, hoping there’d be no hands to shake. You can guess which I chose, and what happened next, can’t you?

I was at the presentation of Walker Books’ and Constable & Robinson’s Autumn Highlights in Manchester on Wednesday evening, when I came face to face with Jo for the first time, and had to quickly get out of the handshaking she had in mind. This flustered me so much I forgot to mention my name. (But everyone knows me, right?) Besides, I’d already got the decrepit old woman treatment. Staff at the venue saw me negotiating the steps outside (which had NO handrail) and quickly bundled me into the lift before I caused more trouble.

Wally bag

Super-Jake was there, but I forgot to check his footwear. Representatives of our local LitFest and bookshops and that most Wondrous of blogs could also be seen. I was quite restrained prior to the talk, as I noticed there were partybags in one corner, which meant I did no stealing or anything beforehand.

Constable & Robinson went first, and I’d not realised that books on prescription, which I have heard of, is for non-fiction self-help type books, rather than patients being made to feel better after a dose of Pride and Prejudice…

They are big on halogen oven books. (Don’t ask.) They are the leaders in cosy crime. You can have books on WWII pets for Christmas. Obviously. C & R have begun offering children’s books, and they had an instructive video on how to fight zombies. (Head removal is recommended.) Gross. Shaun Ryder on UFOs. (It would have helped if I knew who Shaun Ryder is.) Joan Collins is nearly 80, in case you wanted to know. They have a book titled Going on a Bar Hunt. Droll.

This being very much a presentation for booksellers, I now know a lot more about which books are commercial, something I rarely consider in my narrow little world. There will be joke books for Christmas. And they have just begun a relationship with Brian McGilloway, who I am very interested in.

Vivian French bookmark

On to Walker Books, who are planning a picture book party. I think that means they have lots of picture books to offer. Vivian French has something new going; Stargirl Academy. Looks good. Pink. Anthony Browne is a Marmite author, which I can understand. That gorilla still scares me.

Cassandra Clare was there last year, before she grew so big that she doesn’t do this kind of talk. She has a film on the way. Nice for her.

Walker have travel guides, and there is new stuff for fans of GHMILY (Guess How Much I Love You books). Mumsnet have done a story collection. In fact, I reckon there is one thing parents want more than anything else. They want their children to fall asleep. Lots of books for that purpose.

Manatees and bears. A book about someone pecking (I’m thinking – hoping – woodpecker) all the way through.  Going on a Bear Hunt is out again. Michael Morpurgo will be 70, and four of his books are being re-issued, including one about funny old men who are famous artists.

Speaking of funny, Tommy Donbavand has a new series called Fangs. Walker are really really really really thrilled to be working with Anthony McGowan and his new book Hello Darkness. Patrick Ness wasn’t there except on video, where he did his best to sound interesting while not giving too much away about his new novel More Than This. His Chaos trilogy, meanwhile, is being revamped for old people.

My notes say ‘spider skeleton.’ I think there’s a book about things like spider skeletons. Kate DiCamillo and her dog spoke to us all the way from their Minneapolis dining room. While the dog made dog noises, Kate told us about her mother’s obsession with her 1952 vacuum cleaner and what would happen to it after she died. Kate’s new book Flora and Ulysses also features squirrels.

Anthony Horowitz has finally come to the end of his Power of Five books, so has had time to write Russian Roulette, the Alex Rider prequel he has had in mind for absolutely ages. He is quite satisfied with it.

Lizzy Bennet (I apologise for sounding so informal) wrote a diary in her pre-Darcy days, which will give us an opportunity to find out all kinds of stuff.

Finally, Walker are publishing the Little Island imprint, which is foreign fiction. I spied a Swedish title in among the covers they showed us, and think it’s high time there are more books from other countries.

Walker Books autumn books

As you can see, they had a lot to tell us. They hadn’t rehearsed, so were surprised to find it took them so long. But at the end there were canapés and more drinks and even a few authors; Steve Tasane, Sarah Webb and Katy Moran. Someone else, too. At least I think there was.

Wally bag

I grabbed my partybag and hobbled away home. There was NO handrail on the way out either…

The Magician’s Elephant

I didn’t know Kate DiCamillo’s work at all, but as a Newbery medalist she came highly recommended. I can’t remember what it was about The Magician’s Elephant that had made me want to read it, but when I got to page one I almost turned away. Reading a lot of ‘ordinary’ contemporary children’s fiction makes a person less used to fables, and it’s odd when you think about it, because a lot of our reading in the ‘olden days’ was like this. Maybe I thought I’d grown up and wouldn’t need fables.

Well, I do. Luckily I didn’t stop, and actually gobbled up this book in no time at all. It’s beautiful!

Elephants obviously don’t fall from the sky, with or without the help from a magician, but this one here did. And it’s quite believable. Young Peter wants to find his lost sister, and a fortune teller says the elephant will help him. This being before the elephant fell, Peter thinks it unlikely, but is too polite to say so.

The setting feels like a historical Europe, and the names of the characters suggest a multicultural background. This makes the story fit in with almost everyone. Nothing is quite real, but it’s not unreal either.

Lovely illustrations by Yoko Tanaka, showing us what it might have looked like when the elephant came crashing down. It’s sweet and old-fashioned, and it has a happy ending. You will cry a little, and you will feel good about life.