Tag Archives: Rebecca Stead

Harriet the Spy

I was a bit disappointed by Harriet the Spy. Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 novel had been recommended to me, and although I didn’t exactly rush to read it, I fully expected it to be something it wasn’t.

To begin with I quite liked it, but grew to actively dislike Harriet herself. I’m unsure as to whether she’s not meant to be likeable, or if she’s more of a Pippi Longstocking girl that the reader is meant to admire because she’s so different. I believe Harriet the Spy was suggested as an aspie book, and it is, I suppose. Harriet’s problems in relating to her school friends suggests a lack of theory of mind. (With my aspie hat on, I also noticed a couple of ‘mistakes,’ like Harriet going to school on a Sunday.)

Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

It’s a rather charming period piece, set in New York over fifty years ago. It’s the kind of New York it’d be nice to be able to see for yourself, and almost impossible to imagine today.

You have to admire [some of] Harriet’s observational skills. She creeps round the neighbourhood collecting data on people in her notebook, to which she is permanently attached. She sees all these things, but she fails to understand what they mean, what makes people tick. Harriet also fails to allow others to be different. It’s all about her and her ways.

Her nanny is sacked, and everything goes wrong. Her teachers ‘don’t understand her’ and her friends and non-friends alike turn on her. In a way, what this really is is a book by Rebecca Stead, turned on its head. I.e. it’s the plot as seen by the ‘bad’ child, rather than the usual point of view.

And then, everything is ‘fine’ again, which is fine by me, but I didn’t admire the ways it was made fine.

(I have used a book cover image different to the one on my copy, because among other things I dislike is ‘the film/television’ book cover. Especially when it seems to bear little relation to the story.)

Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

Goodbye Stranger

You remember those fire drills at school? They still have them, and possibly even in New York. The school in Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger [also] has intruder practice. Very sensible, when you stop and think. And more frightening as a concept than the fire drill. They have to practise making themselves small, and staying silent.

Rebecca Stead, Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger is another sweet story about children of that in-between age where you are not a small child, but you are not yet a proper teenager. Although in seventh grade some of the students are beginning to outgrow their friends, and this can cause problems.

Bridge is a survivor, having had a serious accident in third grade, missing a whole year of school. She is currently wearing cat ears to make herself feel better. Her friends Tabitha and Emily each have their own problems to worry about, with Emily being the early maturing one, receiving attention from boys and older, popular eighth graders.

She’s not the only one, though, as Bridge makes friends with Sherm, who really likes her. They all appear to lead ordinary, happy lives, were it not for that one little thing that bothers each of them. Sherm’s grandfather has suddenly upped and left his grandmother, and Bridge had her accident, and Bridge’s older brother has the wrong friend.

Emily learns the hard way about exchanging texts with the boy she likes, and Tab and Bridge are there to help her. And then there is the anonymous girl who is having a really bad day, as we follow her around, without knowing who she is, but learning all about what troubles her. We can tell she’s close to the others, but not who she is.

As the year progresses the children develop, and they learn from their mistakes. It’s all pretty middle-class, and for the overseas reader it is charmingly New York-y.

And there is the question of whether Apollo 11 really landed on the moon, or if it was all a hoax.

Middle grade, YA or New Adult?

Can we make our minds up, please? What is a YA book? In my post on 22nd March, which was based on an excellent list of YA novels, someone left a comment saying that despite being of almost YA age, she doesn’t read many YA books because they are all the same and mainly romances.

I’m thinking she’s only found the Twilight brigade. Even the publicity emails I get from publishers, trying to interest me in yet another one, tend to be a little same-y. But mostly those books have moved on and turned into New Adult books. Or I think they have. Basically they are today’s Mills & Boon but cooler. And M&B were (are?) read by young people as well as elderly ladies.

And then you could go the other way, and complain that YA books are far too childish. In that case you’ve been sold another middle grade book. Which is a shame, as the words middle grade describes a certain kind of age group very well, even if it sounds a little American to some of us.

But whatever you think, you’re – probably – not going to want sexy vampires if you are ten years old, and whereas you never grow too old for a really good middle grade story, some readers will not find enough action or ‘sex’ in a book by Eva Ibbotson or Rebecca Stead, say.

Publicists are there to sell books, so will to some extent say what they need to sell a book, whether or not it is true. But I feel they are doing the books a disservice by giving them the wrong label. Calling everything YA, when it isn’t, will turn readers off.

The Ibbotson fan may grow up to like dystopian romances a few years later, but the 20+ reader who is already too old for those, will assume YA is not for them, when there is a whole host of ‘ageless’ YA books out there.

YA is not the only attractive term for a good book. At least it shouldn’t be. I feel it’s a shame that readers miss out because of labelling.

The Guardian 2013 longlist

Might this list change lives, I wonder?

At first I thought there’s not much you can say about a longlist, even though I usually do when the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize lists are published. I toyed with the idea of saying nothing, but then I remembered that fateful list nine years ago. Nine years!

This older reader saw a book called How I Live Now mentioned and just knew she had to read it. (She’s a witch. That’s probably how she knew this.) The book wasn’t even out yet, so had to be ordered and waited for. Not only was it the best book she’d read, but it changed her life.

So perhaps one of the books on this year’s list will have that effect on someone, somewhere?

Of the eight, I have read three and a half. All would be worthy winners. The half, too. I can only assume the remaining four are pretty good as well. They could all be life-changers, and not necessarily for the authors.

Sally Gardner, Maggot Moon

David Almond, Gillian Cross, Sally Gardner, John Green and Rebecca Stead have already done well. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t go on and do even more well. Katherine Rundell, William Sutcliffe and Lydia Syson are new to me, but so was Meg Rosoff that time. She turned out all right, didn’t she?

I hope someone finds the reading passion of their life in amongst these books.

And then there’s the competition for critics aged 17 and under to write a review of  one of the books. In the nine years since my moment of discovery I have been acquainted with two such young winners. I hope winning changed something for them too.

You just never know what will be waiting round the corner. It could be a literary longlist.

(I seem to recall people expect me to predict. OK, the shortlist – because that’s all the predicting you get at this point – will be Gillian Cross, Sally Gardner, John Green and William Sutcliffe. And I’ve used Sally’s book cover here because Maggot Moon is truly extraordinary, and since the other books are pretty marvellous, that tells you how good it is. The 2004 winner agrees with me.)

Liar & Spy

Liar & Spy is what I have taken to labelling a New York kind of children’s book. Do you know what I mean? I love them with a passion, and I’ll have to stop ridiculing the Americans for loving boarding schools and castles and other charming – and English – things.

Rebecca Stead, Liar & Spy

Rebecca Stead has written a wonderfully warm story about Georges, who has to move with his parents from their house in Brooklyn to an apartment when they fall on hard(er) times. It’s close enough that he can stay at his school. But he is being bullied, and his only friend has joined the ‘other side.’

There are other children in the apartment block, and Georges makes friends with Safer and his sister Candy, who are home-schooled. Safer invites Georges to join his spy club and they take to spying on the neighbours, until things get a bit bad. Things at school are also not going well, but Georges doesn’t share any of this with his father.

We don’t see much of Georges’ mother because she works double shifts at the hospital. She leaves him messages by way of Scrabble tiles when he sleeps.

Eventually we learn why Safer spies on people, and Georges works out what to do about the situation at school. It is all very American. I don’t think this would work in the UK, and that’s the whole charm of Liar & Spy. I just loved it!

A Wrinkle in Time

With my usual flair for not having heard of classics that ‘everyone’ else grew up with, I only came across  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle two years ago when Meg Rosoff was talking about it. She wanted to give me her spare copy which she then failed to find. As with most things, once you have heard of them, they crop up with increasing frequency. It wasn’t long before my next American writer (Rebecca Stead) mentioned that she had also been influenced by A Wrinkle in Time.

Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Always suspicious of odd sounding titles and unusual author names, I took my time over this, but you’ll be pleased to know that Daughter’s Christmas present to me was most welcome. Having been warned by Meg that I had to love it, I even got round to reading it with startling speed. By strange coincidence it was on a dark and stormy night…

And I’m fine. If I’m to be shunned, it won’t be over A Wrinkle in Time. It’s lovely!

I especially love Charles Wallace, Meg’s little brother (that’s Meg in the book, not Ms Rosoff). And it was only halfway through the book that I realised that some of my fears for him might have been erroneously formed by listening to something someone said, out of context. Although this darling boy does put himself in dreadful danger.

Next, I love their friend Calvin, who is almost too good to be true, in that ‘olden days’ American way. And the mother, Mrs Murry. What a woman! But I do see what Meg saw in Meg. I just can’t identify with her in the same way. She’s a lovely heroine, and very brave, going travelling through space and time to find her lost scientist father.

It’s almost true that they don’t write books like this any more. And I do wish I’d read it back in the 1960s. I loved this kind of book, and I loved science fiction. But all’s well that ends well, and now I have read it.

Thank you, ladies!

The Rebecca Stead interview

Rebecca Stead

Meeting someone new and interviewing them is a lot harder than when I’ve been reading someone’s books for years and feel as if I know them inside and out. But it’s a fun sort of challenge, once in a while. There are authors you’ve heard of but never read, and then there are the Rebecca Steads, where I haven’t even heard of them until just before meeting them. What you need then is a book that you like a lot.

And I loved When You Reach Me, and the idea of seeing Rebecca in London and finding out more about her was a great idea. It rained rather, but the ginger cake was good. And Rebecca turned out to be a really nice person. Thank goodness for that unusual New York education!

Read the interview here.

Then read When You Reach Me.