Archive for ‘children’s literature’

November 11, 2015

JiHyeon Lee, Pool

Because water stories. Column here, or below.



JiHyeon Lee’s picture book Pool begins with a young boy by a swimming pool, empty and inviting. He’s about to get in, we assume, when a crowd of other people rush into his (and our) sight. They’re mostly adults, all bigger than him, armed with rubber rings and toys and all looking a lot less serious than our protagonist does. Hell is other people with beach balls. A page later the pool is packed, so full of people and floatation aids that we can barely see the tiny spots of blue water between them. And so our protagonist dives underwater instead, and that is where everything gets exciting.

Sound changes under water, as do movement, and colour, and even time. Immediately once the boy has entered the water he’s cut off from the world above (now a riot of feet and flippers at the top of the page) and in a dreamlike space which seems to work in different ways to the world he’s left behind. This new world has one other human inhabitant; a girl who has had the same idea as him. The boy’s skin and clothes, on the surface the same greys and creams as everyone else, take on new and rich colours; the girl wears a red swimsuit.

Suddenly the children are free, exploring a glorious, improbable underwater world. Shoals of brightly coloured fish with beaklike noses flit birdlike through an underwater forest; tiny creatures with long, tpool3ubelike noses sniff curiously at the intruders. There are friendly sea serpents peeping out of the holes in coral formations, sharklike creatures with huge, prehistoric grins but apparently benign intentions, giant sea slugs, and fish that appear designed to be ridiculous. The range of real world ocean life can often be so weird and wonderful that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that these creatures (a mobile feather boa, a goofy-faced yellow creature with both fur and fins) aren’t based on real things; particularly when a trio of narwhals shows up. Perhaps that’s the point though—our imaginations allow us to have the real and the fantastic simultaneously. We can have dragons and dinosaurs and iguanas all at the same time, should we so choose.

It’s not this diverse underwater menagerie that makes Pool special, however, but how it handles sound and space. In the early pages, there’s often nothing on the page but the boy and his corner of the pool in a vast white plane. Underwater the children have all the space they want; the three-spread sequence in which they meet a huge whale iPool2n particular gives a strong sense of size and scope and wonder. Above, as the pool fills with people, so does the page, till it is covered to the very edges and visually busy. (There’s often something a little disgusting about bodies en masse; in crowds we are reduced to the sweaty meatsacks that we really are. Lee manages to keep her crowds human and distinct, though I wish she hadn’t chosen to depict most of the offending pool-goers as fat.) Pool is a book entirely without words, but manages its depictions of space to make those silences sometimes plangent and echoing (the empty pool, the vast space around it) and sometimes intimate (the underwater world, so safely cocooned against the world above). The colours are delicate, the lines are pencil; it’s a very quiet book.

With an escort of strange creatures, the children swim back to the surface. The crowd has exited the pool as a group (perhaps someone saw a shark); the boy and girl take their goggles and swimming caps off and smile at each other for the first time. Their skin and clothes retain the vivid colour they acquired down below; they have been transformed.

And just as we think the crowd who stayed up on the surface have been utterly discarded by the book, a child in a rubber ring turns around to stare at the weird pink and yellow fish that have appeared in the pool. The children have brought back with them some of the wonder of the deep.


September 15, 2015

The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Have a version of a recent column.


I’ve been thinking about apocalypses a lot recently. Or perhaps not. I’ve been thinking about climate change, about worlds that end and worlds that change and the ways in which we might imagine them, and trying to work out what it is that I want from fiction that tries to tackle these things. What I don’t want seems clear: books where these huge things are relegated to background noise as if they weren’t fundamental to how we exist materially and emotionally in the world. What I want are several things at once, the sort of range that is beyond the scope of a single text. I want possible futures that could serve as horrifying warnings, and possible futures in which humans alter the ways in which we live in radical, beautiful ways; and I want the quiet, deep sadness of acceptance that the world we love is about to be lost forever. The world (or the publishing industry) seems willing to throw up several horrifying warnings (and endless stories of young white people finding love in hopeless places) but too little of the other things, and they are the ones I really crave.

I found something of what I’m looking for in a 1950s children’s book that can in no way be said to be about apocalypses, or even climate change, at all. Mary Norton’s The Borrowers is a book about tiny, human-shaped people who live under the floorboards (and in other secluded places) in human houses, and who subsist on what they can “borrow” from the humans in whose homes they live. The story (once you get past the multiple frame narratives) opens in an old country house, once inhabited by a big family and staff, as well as several families of borrowers: the Overmantels, the Harpsichords, the Rain-Barrels, the Linen-Presses, the Bell-Pulls, the Hon. John Studdingtons (this family live behind a portrait), the list goes on. But time has gone by and most of the humans have moved out, and so too have the Borrowers. At the beginning of this book, then, the only borrowers left in the house are the small family of the Clocks—teenaged Arrietty and her mother and father, Homily and Pod.borrowers3

We’re seeing all this from Arrietty’s perspective, and all she can really tell is that the humans are slowly leaving. The (human) reader may ask if it was a war that did it or general social change—as far as the Borrowers are concerned, their major resource is drying up. Because that’s what humans (“human-beans”, appropriately a sort of vegetable) are to them; it’s why taking from them is “borrowing” rather than “stealing”. (“Human beans are for Borrowers”, explains Arrietty to the young human boy whom she befriends.) We (presumably) human readers are immersed in the Borrower perspective–if we can’t quite distance ourselves enough to think of ourselves as a mere resource, it’s easy to see this vast, increasingly empty, increasingly run-down house and imagine our own extinction. If the humans are dying out—and the reader can easily imagine this huge, lonely boy to be the last of us—what are the Borrowers to live on? But it’s more than that, more than a mere depletion of resources. It’s the empty house that used to be filled with people–we’re asked, over and over, to imagine a world emptied of the creatures, human and borrower, that once filled it.

This is not to claim The Borrowers as a piece of apocalyptic fiction—or to turn it into a clumsy allegory for our own times and situation. But Arrietty and her parents’s whole understanding of the world and their place in it is unsustainable and they know it—at some level they have already accepted their own ending.

The humans are not (yet) facing extinction, as it turns out. The boy speaks of “railways stations and football matches and … India and China and the British Commonwealth. He told her about the July sales.” There are billions of us–and what if it’s the other way around, and Arrietty and her parents are the only Borrowers left? In later books we’ll learn that this is not the case, that other Borrowers still live in exile, but their numbers have dwindled. Mrs May, through whose voice we first hear of them, thinks they may no longer exist. The Borrowers is suffused with this sense of an ending, and while we’re never explicitly asked to grieve, I think this may be the source of much of its power.



June 22, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: Tinder and Cuckoo Song, predictions and thoughts

Clearly we saved the most enjoyable week till the last.

TinderSally Gardner and David Roberts, Tinder: Okay, so I don’t entirely understand the Carnegie’s rules as regards illustrated works. Tinder is the only book on this year’s shortlist to also appear on the Carnegie’s sister award,  the Kate Greenaway’s  shortlist for illustration. Only Gardner’s name appears on the Carnegie, both Gardner and Roberts’s names appear on the Greenaway (this is consistent–in all other cases on the Greenaway shortlist where text and art are by different people, both are credited). But I’m not here to judge the Greenaway, and what I’m left wondering about is this–does this mean I’m supposed to be assessing Tinder only by Gardner’s words?

Tinder is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinderbox” (the one with the magic dogs with giant eyes), but transported to Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. I mention this because it seems important to how Gardner conceptualises the book–the specifics of the war that lies at the back of the narrative is rarely visible. That’s probably fine–the fairytale as a form is an excellent vehicle for a lot of things, but historical specificity is probably not one of them.

Form is probably going to be important to any reading of the book. One of the ways in which fairytales work is by not being very internal–it’s this detachedness that also allows them to talk about horrifying things. But then you have something like Tinder, which is longer than a fairytale (though not as long as it looks, because so much of it is the artwork) and so needs to sustain itself for that length, and is pretty explicitly about PTSD, and yet is shutting itself off from much of the interiority of the novel. I’m not convinced it works; I enjoyed reading it, but not in ways that involved much investment, and while I wouldn’t count that as a flaw in some sorts of narrative, it was something I missed here.

The art is beautiful, though, and I’m glad Roberts is receiving credit for that separately. This would be a much-diminished book without the illustrations–as it is, it’s a beautiful physical object as well as everything else. Not the best book on this shortlist (I haven’t looked at all the Greenaway books so cannot speak for that list, though the Shaun Tan book looks gorgeous) but good, and so pretty.


18298890Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song: I liked this book a lot.

Cuckoo Song begins with Triss waking up after a near-drowning and piecing herself back together, while trying to figure out what happened to her. The first section of the novel is dedicated to this mystery and it is, to me, the weakest part; still enjoyable to read (Hardinge is good at writing sentences) but not emotionally important. It’s once this particular mystery has been solved, when Triss has to face the truth of what she is, that Cuckoo Song suddenly begins to work really well.

Because Triss is (spoiler!) a changeling, and is inherently parasitic, and is dying. And Cuckoo Song hits so many character notes that I an susceptible to–Triss’s consciousness of her own destructiveness, her detachedness, that sense of feeling at a remove; toxic relationships and sisterly relationships and found family and wanting to protect. And Ellchester and its architecture work and the ways in which we move between horror and fantasy also work. It sometimes does the clever thing where things work as fantasy and allegory at the same time and sit comfortable beside each other and one does not subsume the other. I wasn’t even annoyed that it  was yet another WWI book (if I have a quibble I think it might be that I don’t endorse this book’s conception of history).

When I read A Face Like Glass many months ago, I said it felt as if Hardinge was drawing on aspects of some of my favourite authors– Joan Aiken, Mervyn Peake, Diana Wynne Jones. I see traces of so many things I love in Cuckoo Song, though it doesn’t feel derivative or even deliberately bricolage-y, and it’s extremely enjoyable to read. I don’t know, though, if this is connected to the fact that I enjoyed both of those books in quite a detached way. Even when, in the case of Cuckoo Song in particular, they were hitting all my particular emotional beats.

I’m not sure that isn’t a compliment though.



Predictions, thoughts: I suppose it would be okay if More Than This or Buffalo Soldier or maybe Tinder (though if Gardner won the Carnegie and Roberts didn’t win the Greenaway, that would feel unfair) won this year’s award, but as far as I’m concerned, Cuckoo Song is the best thing on the list by a considerable distance.

But I’m underwhelmed. I wasn’t always the biggest fan of last year’s shortlist, but other than the two particularly unfortunate titles (Ghost Hawk and The Child’s Elephant) I could see why each of those books was on that list. In a more just world the judges would have recognised that Liar & Spy was perfect, but The Bunker Diary was ambitious and had an integrity that I really do admire. This year’s shortlist has felt toothless to me; Hardinge aside, Landman and Ness’s books are the only ones that feel like they might be important, and both falter for me in crucial places. As a representative selection of the best children’s lit published in Britain over this period, this would be depressing if I didn’t know I’d read better things over this period. Where, for example, was Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike? If they wanted smart, earnest, funny things (they did last year; surely that was part of the appeal of Rooftoppers and Liar & Spy?), where was Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees? Not even claiming either of these books was perfect (Murder Most Unladylike is about as close to perfect as it gets, though), but they don’t have to be.

And that’s two British children’s book awards shortlists I’ve read this year that have been made up entirely of white authors, as far as I can tell (usual disclaimers apply), and last year’s Carnegie shortlist (I did not see last year’s Little Rebels shortlist) was the same. That really is depressing.

June 15, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: The Middle of Nowhere and Buffalo Soldier

This year’s Carnegie has been short on drama so here is some drama: will our heroine finish blogging about the books in time? More importantly, will she care?

Probably not, to be honest.


Geraldine McCaughrean, The Middle of Nowhere

Comity is the daughter of a telegraph operator on an isolated station in the Australian outback, her only friend an Aboriginal boy named Fred. When the book opens her mother has just died (of a snakebite), and her father Herbert is falling apart from grief. Things rapidly get very, very bad–as Herbert is less and less able to cope his new assistant, Quartz Hogg, gains more and more power and Comity, Herbert and Fred are increasingly isolated.

The first part of The Middle of Nowhere makes for a really effective horror story; the isolation, the slowly building tension, the sheer evil of Hogg, who manages to be racist, sexually predatory and violent. You can see how beautifully this would work on film. The tension is broken, however, when Comity and Fred run away into the wilderness, but then Fred nearly dies, they meet some “Ghans” (Muslim immigrants who are not from Afghanistan), before eventually coming home to even more horror than they left.

I feel like there are two good books in The Middle of Nowhere. One’s that first horror story, the second, tonally completely different, is the last section of the book, in which a terrified Comity is trying to protect her father and almost causes a war. One of the people present for this discussion said there was something a bit Frances Hardinge about this part of the plot, the image of this child in her father’s office sending these messages out into the world, and I can see that–and children struggling to protect people they love is a thing I am (like most people?) susceptible to.

The problem, for me, is the rest of the book outside these two sections (and some of the parts of it inside them as well). It’s slack, in parts, and a bit toothless. Its treatment of race is often infuriatingly simplistic: good white people, like Comity and her parents, are not racist; bad white people, like drunk sexual predator Hogg, are. Comity’s afraid of the “ghans” because she doesn’t know anything about them, but then she learns. The warring people of colour have to ally immediately to stop the Europeans from killing them all (okay, that one’s probably accurate). Between this and some of the functions to which the text puts Fred, I rolled my eyes several times. I wish we’d had either of the books this one could have been; and I wish the genuinely great moments (the dried-up prehistoric sea!) had been built on.

Also: rarely has such a good first line of a book been so let down by its second line.


Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier:

I was dreading this one. Last year’s book about race and American history did not go well, shall we say– indeed, nothing about last year’s list suggested that nuanced discussion of race was one of the criteria the judges were applying.

So it was a massive relief that this turned out to be much better than I’d expected (caveating this with my lack of expertise in American history). Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it’s the story of a young black woman, Charley, who pretends to be a man and joins the army, originally for want of anywhere else to go. Plantation life is not glamorised but nor is what “freedom” is available to these characters after the war, and Landman gives as much time to the minor depressing realities (the necessity of a lot of walking, the continued existence of bodily functions–it shouldn’t be this refreshing to have a character menstruate) as she does to the major ones–for obvious reasons this is not a cheerful book. But the camaraderie between Charley and the other soldiers occasionally lightens things a bit (until they die, of course). Most importantly, Charley’s not magically tolerant in the way that Comity’s family, above, seems to be–she begins the book prejudiced against Native Americans and has that prejudice repeatedly challenged and (this is important) repeatedly fails to learn and get past it. But up to a point we see that process and the gradual reframing of thoughts it requires, and it feels realistic and fair to the character as well as real, historical people. And then Charley meets a young Apache man named Jim and falls in love.


[Rough, confused thoughts ahead]

I’ve spent a lot of time ranting with a friend recently about political agency in fictional characters. Katniss just wants to protect the people she loves and she’s swept up unwittingly in a revolution that she has to learn to navigate and that’s fine, but we’re never offered characters who begin from a position of having a broader morality-based politics–unless you count the fanatics who are willing to kill whoever stands in the way of the bigger cause. What I mean, and I don’t wish to put the responsibility for this on children’s literature when it feels like something that’s missing across the board, is that I don’t see models for collective morality that aren’t based in a purely personal relationship. Comity is prejudiced against the “ghans” and learns better, but she’s helped along the way by Moosa being helpful and pretty and fluent in English; Charley might eventually have overcome her prejudice on purely intellectual/moral grounds but is saved the necessity of this by Jim’s being really attractive.

And perhaps it’s unfair to criticise these books for not doing things they’re clearly not trying to do, but I want something more than “we should be nice to people who are not like us because they are more like us than we think, and/or sexy”. What would it mean to come up against the limits of our present capability for empathy, to face people or problems genuinely outside those limits, how do we behave morally then? It’s a question that feels very current to me (in part because I’ve kept turning to Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities this year, but it’s related, I think, to this post by Kate Schapira [and Niall Harrison raises a similar question in a soon-to-be-published review]), but it’s also one that seems like it ought to be central to the history of racism, so that historical fiction might legitimately be a space for exploring it. Neither of these two particular works of historical fiction provides such a space–I don’t think McCaughrean’s book particularly wants to, but Buffalo Soldier comes frustratingly close. It’s not a useful metric by which to judge either book, though, probably.

June 7, 2015

The Carnegie shortlist: More Than This and Apple and Rain

This time last year I was trying to read (and write about) the whole of the Carnegie shortlist in far too short a time. This year we gave ourselves ample time–two books every three weeks (clubbed together relatively randomly in our discussions, as they are here)–and are now six books into the shortlist of eight. Despite all this extra time, and for reasons that will probably become apparent as we go through this shortlist, I am not doing separate posts on all the books this year.


Patrick Ness, More Than This: NessMore

Definitely a good thing I’m not writing entire posts about these books because I only skimmed this one this time. I’d read it properly at the end of 2013, shortly after it came out, and while I enjoyed it (as far as you can ‘enjoy’ something as upsetting as this) I wasn’t entirely bowled over by it. In part this was because of the insistence, more prominent at the time of the book’s publication, on the fact that the main character does die at the beginning of the book. I am clearly nitpicking, but it did rather feel like the book was trying to claim to be doing something quite difficult (writing a story in which the protagonist is really, properly killed off at the beginning) while at the same time trying to benefit from an ambiguous is this real? is it fantasy? is this the afterlife? are we in the matrix? that continues for much of the plot. That plot, in brief: Seth drowns, then wakes up in a deserted English town he recognises from his childhood. The rest of the novel is spent in trying to find out what has happened, surviving his present situation (alongside two other children, Regine and Tomasz) and for the reader, piecing together the children’s past lives. Ness’s real strength isn’t so much the exploration of situations (I think very highly of the Chaos Walking books but not as a nuanced exploration of colonialism and war) as of people in those situations–when talking about the specifics of characters he’s able to capture something that is strong and honest and moving. He’s at his weakest when dealing in abstracts–it’s when he writes about particular people feeling particular things that he’s at his best. All of Seth’s memories of his previous life felt urgent and important to me in ways that the book’s present rarely managed–and that’s including the Robinson Crusoe-y bits at the beginning and the (terrifying, seriously) Driver. I really should read Ness’s non-fantasy work.


Sarah Crossan, Apple and Rain:

APRAINI haven’t read The Weight of Water, Crossan’s novel in verse, and on the strength of Apple and Rain I think I might like to. This book is told from the perspective of Apple, a teenage girl who has not seen her mother for years, and lives with her grandmother (with occasional visits from her father and his new partner). When her mother returns, all remorseful and cool and willing to let her daughter skip school and occasionally drink alcohol (such a contrast to her overprotective grandmother) Apple is completely won over, even when it turns out there are things her mother has been keeping from her. Like the existence of Rain, her little sister. Teenage girls navigating complex family relationships and dealing with unreliable adults–everyone I discussed this with immediately brought up Jacqueline Wilson, who of course does that sort of thing brilliantly. This is also one reason Crossan’s book failed to impress any of us very much–we’ve read versions of this book several times before so that it would need to be done very well to stand out. It isn’t done that well–the relationships between the main women characters work, but the characters themselves often lack much depth (and Rain’s age seems all over the place). There’s also, presumably not in a bid to collect the complete set of clichés, the mysterious, perfect, new boy at school who only has eyes for Apple; also a Dead Poets Society English teacher in whose classes the students learn that war is bad (there’s a great moment when he’s forced to acknowledge the presence of a student whose father is in the army, however) and to express themselves; who does not recognise appropriate teacher-student boundaries (showing up at a student’s house randomly? No.) but does recognise Apple’s special poetic talent. I’m probably being more dismissive than a book I genuinely enjoyed reading deserves; there are moments that genuinely do work and Crossan resists the temptation to wrap it all up too neatly. But Apple and Rain is one of those books that just doesn’t feel thought-through. There’s only a sporadic sense of the other characters in this world having real, complex lives worth knowing about–at any moment the book will choose to fall back on mean girls and perfect boys next door and uniquely talented protagonists.

May 15, 2015

Insufficiently radical crayons

Although that title makes it seem as if I’m blaming the crayons for the grossly unequal power structures they inhabit, which is clearly unfair. Anyway, here is a column about Daywalt and Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit, which is not about crayons quitting, but about their bodies and labour (identical, in this scenario) being exploited until they die.



Crayons give you power. This is something of which Harold, the protagonist of Crockett Johnson’s 1955 book Harold and the Purple Crayon, is well aware. Harold is able to create around himself the world he wants to see, simply by drawing it. His purple crayon brings whatever it draws to life, be it the moon, a tree, or his own house. Art is powerful and Harold can make art and so there is no limit to what he can do.

We’re not told whether the crayon feels quite the same way.

pink dinosaurThe protagonist of Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit does know how his crayons feel about his use of them, in some detail. Duncan finds a stack of letters from the various colours in his box of crayons, each of them telling him of their grievances. The Red Crayon is convinced that it works harder than any of the others, and that it gets a particularly raw deal on holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. The Purple Crayon has no objections to a life spent drawing dragons and grapes, but does request that Duncan colour inside the lines rather than wasting its labour outside them. Grey would like to make less elephants, Pink would like less gender stereotyping (the only reason it has been used at all is that Duncan’s sister borrowed it once), Peach has been stripped by Duncan of its paper wrapping and feels that its modesty has been outraged. Black would prefer a starring role sometimes rather than being always relegated to the outlines; white isn’t sure why it is being used at all, and Beige’s major complaint appears to be that it is boring, which is hardly Duncan’s fault. Only Green, Yellow and Orange seem to be happy, and the latter two are in the middle of a longstanding argument. All of these letters are written in the colours of their own crayons, and accompanied by the illustrations invoked in them; large grey mammals, Santa riding a fire engine, pink monsters and beige wheat.

But then there’s the letter from Blue, and it is terrifying. Blue is Duncan’s favourite colour, and has been for some years now. He uses it to draw water and clouds and sky. Red may complain that it is overworked, Grey may complain about having to fill in vast areas of elephant-skin, but it’s obvious to the reader that they have a less hard time of it than Blue. Blue is too exhausted even to stand up; it is a mere stub of a thing. Blue doesn’t have much time left.


Because The Day the Crayons Quit is a misleading title. The crayons can’t quit in this world, even if (after Orange and Yellow put aside their differences) they unionised. This isn’t a story of taking back power, it’s one in which the powerless beg their master to reduce their suffering (or, in Green’s case, suck up to him. Green’s a collaborator). Should Duncan choose to ignore the letters, what can the crayons do? The more he uses them, the closer their lives come to ending. They recognise where the power in this relationship lies. Even Blue, who ends its letter begging for a break opens it by pandering to Duncan’s feelings, and telling him how much it has enjoyed their collaborations. The fact that the letters are written in crayon takes on a new significance—surely for a crayon this is akin to writing in blood?purpdrag

“Poor” Duncan, we’re told, “wanted his crayons to be happy”, and so he does accede to their requests; the picture at the end of the book features orange whales, pink dinosaurs and a green sea. But what of Blue’s insistence that he needs a break? Well, he’s been spared the sea and sky, but in this picture the land is blue, a bus is blue, a hippo is blue. Duncan may be merciful … but he may not. We’re left to wonder how much of Blue is left, whether he even survived this final picture.

Duncan’s teacher gives him a gold star for creativity.




May 4, 2015

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award Shortlist (Part II)

And on to the second part of the list (the first is here)!


Joan Lingard, Trouble on Cable Street

This is set in London during the Spanish Civil War, against a backdrop of rising fascism in Europe and England. Isabella is fourteen, is half Spanish, half English, and has twin seventeen-year-old brothers. William is a supporter of the Spanish republicans (as are Isabella and their parents), but Arthur is all England for the English and Hitler Isn’t So bad. William goes to Spain to fight in the war, Arthur joins a party of Blackshirts led by a wealthy friend, Rupert, who has a crush on Isabella.

The Blakes are good people and so have a tendency to take wounded people into their home despite Arthur’s opinions. Twice in the novel injured young men are brought home and cared for, and the Blakes are able to save one, but fail to save the other. Isabella has romances with Sean Flynn, who is the Irish boy next door and with Angus Anderson—Angus is rich and Isabella wants to better herself so that’s probably where that’s going.

Where Trouble on Cable Street works is in the way it really brings home the extent to which England and Europe are bound up in one another, and gives us some sense of a multicultural London which has existed for a long time. Isabella’s employers are Jewish, half of her family Spanish, and at one point she informs a colleague that her grandmother was a gypsy—which shocks said colleague but doesn’t have any bigger ramifications (and I feel like it should, in this book’s context?). And I guess hurrah for not necessarily ending up with your childhood boyfriend, and also for assuming that people on the same family can be on different sides.


Unfortunately, this book feels to me like another example of the sort of historical fiction that pushes the “people in the past were just like us!” narrative*; Isabella and her family provide us with an easy way into this world because they share exactly the same set of values that the reader of this book is assumed to have, and so there’s never any sense of anything these protagonists experience as morally complex. For all its insistence on not discriminating or relying on stereotype, here we are with the hardworking ideal family of immigrants who are attractive and helpful and industrious and super-liberal and great, totally unlike the drunk Irish guy next door who beats his wife, whose kids are quick tempered and whose youngest son steals. Plus it starts over-exposition-y, ends over-abruptly, and I’m not sure what is going on with the cover (see above, and please explain this to me). Entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it’s award-worthy.


Bernard Ashley, Nadine Dreams of Home

Nadine is a child from Goma, in the DRC. She is sent by her father, along with the rest of her family, to the UK during what I suspect (the book is short on details, understandably) was the M23 rebellion. Her father did not escape with them and the family have no news of him. This, her inability to understand the local language, and her homesickness combine to make her extremely unhappy. Then a teacher shows her some pictures of Goma on the internet (she can’t operate the school computers herself, presumably in large part because of the language barrier) and from then on she spends each visit to the school library looking at a particular picture of a familiar landscape and dreaming of happier times.

A thing this book does well is to capture the difficulty of genuinely not understanding most of what is going on around you because of a difference in language and culture—Nadine is constantly forced to try to interpret, get things wrong, be unable to apologise, and both the experience of being disconnected and unable to communicate and the frustration that comes with it are invoked effectively. I think it’s good at quite a lot of feelings—the lack of safety that comes with the absence of her father Fabrice—the only member of the family who can speak English; the brutal matter of factness that is sometimes the only response to grief. (“Dad was. We three are what there is now.”) And this scene:

“Nadine’s mother spent Saturday showing her which bus took them to the street market, and how to go to the post office to get money. It was as if she was poking Nadine in the ribs with what she was trying to get her to understand.”

And on the way home Nadine’s mother said “Forget Dad” in the same matter-of-fact voice she had used to buy the bus tickets.

Which works because it’s so clear that the absence of Nadine’s father isn’t just (“just”) the loss of someone she and her mother love, but in a strange country and a strange language, it’s the loss of basic safety and the inability to take for granted one’s ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

There are any number of books for children in which libraries and research play a major role in working through and understanding serious issues—Nadine spends a lot of time in the library but, refreshingly, doesn’t spend it reading. Instead the book focuses on a completely different thing—places and pictures as talismans, dreaming as escape.

I’m not convinced by the ending, but hey.


Mel Elliott, Pearl Power

Pearl and her mother have to move to a new house and new town because her mother has been promoted at work and is now the boss. This means that Pearl has to go to a new school, where she feels nervous but reminds herself that she is a mighty girl and can do anything. When a classmate bullies her and teases her for doing things “like a girl” she smiles and says “thank you”.

I really like the artwork here—greys and oranges, primarily, and very simply done. There’s a spread depicting Pearl and her mother leaving town which is just a dark grey map that their red van is driving through, but all the places on the map are marked out in terms of associations and friends and family’s names, and it creates a really lovely effect of community. Also good is the Tom-and-Jerry-ish thing of having the adults and taller children only be visible from the waist down, showing the world at Pearl’s level.


As a feminist children’s book though? Hm. I like the sense of mother and daughter as single family unit, both vulnerable (we’re told that Pearl’s mother is also nervous about her first day) and friendly with each other. The book opens with a poem about Pearl’s name that mentions “Mr and Mrs Power”, her parents, but we don’t see a father anywhere, just these two women who clearly make up a household.

And there’s a lot to be said for the book’s choice not to abandon things like nurturing and kindness—Pearl may run and do maths “like a girl” and do them well, but she cuddles weeping classmates “like a girl” as well. On the other—the book does make her rather superhuman; she’ll kick a ball to the moon, or run heroically through pain, or meet any sort of vulnerability by shrugging it off and being sure of herself. Which would be great if it came with some sort of interiority, but it doesn’t. Pearl knows what to respond, we’re told several times over. I wish she didn’t, the whole thing just feels superficial.


Gill Lewis, Scarlet Ibis

Scarlet, her mother, and her half-brother Red all live together. The little brother has (I think—Lewis doesn’t give us specifics and I don’t feel in a position to diagnose) some form of autism spectrum condition, the mother is suffering from depression (see previous caveats), and Scarlet, at twelve, is trying to balance school with keeping the family fed, clothed, and functional-looking enough that social services won’t swoop in and separate them. Obviously this is impossible, and soon she’s in a foster family with no idea where her brother is and only occasional visits to her mother in hospital.

There’s a subplot involving Red’s fascination with birds, a baby pigeon the two of them were watching over and a strange old lady near Scarlet’s new school who also loves birds. But for once I’m more interested in the humans; Scarlet’s loving but frustrated relationship with her mother and her protectiveness of her brother, the foster family who take her in.

There’s no sense of things being easy here. The system that takes the family into its care is far from perfect and Scarlet is often rightfully angry at it— at the end of the book she thanks her social worker friend Jo for “listening” and she’s right to, but she’d be justified in adding a “finally”. She wonders whether being mixed-race while Red is white might be a factor in separating them and though this is refuted in this case we’re left with the sense that it could be. And human emotions are complex and contradictory.

I haven’t been writing about the books on this shortlist in any particular order, but I’m glad this one is last so that I can declare my allegiance to it. I don’t think it’s the best book on the shortlist (for me, that is Haughton’s) but it feels like the one that most achieves the goals that the prize sets for itself.

Scarlet Ibis doesn’t parade its inclusion of multiracial families or issues of mental health; though they’re essential to this plot, the book only makes them a part of its world. More importantly, it reimagines a society based on community. There’s a magical moment towards the end of the book in which Scarlet’s new school friends think that she has done something terrible, but then they verify her story (well done, responsible kids!), ascertain that she’s doing something they find morally okay, and then stand by her in solidarity and give her what help they can. There are no mean girls here. Whether they are random employees of the local zoo, interfering but kindly neighbours, teenage boys who have just had a foster sister thrust upon them or primary school students, every person in this world is fundamentally decent; it is possible to ask for help and receive it. As a fantasy fan and a children’s literature fan I end up being presented a lot of literature that insists on confronting the grimdarkness of the world by reproducing it endlessly, and to me Scarlet Ibis felt radical in its goodness. This isn’t escapism, it’s imagining a world as it could be.


[I thought about writing something here on the subject of the sheer whiteness of children’s literature in the UK, but a) Malorie Blackman’s already said it b) I’ll probably have to say it again once I’ve read the Carnegie shortlist. Consider this a placeholder, in any case.]


*The evil twin of the “everyone in the past was bigoted but we know better now!” narrative, except that they’re both pretty evil (or at least misleading and sometimes dangerous). It’s a bit like that Sweet Valley High subseries where an evil doppelganger tries to kill a Wakefield twin and take her place and then the evil doppelganger turns out to have an evil twin of her own. But with history, I guess.

April 27, 2015

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award Shortlist (Part I)

I’m blogging the Carnegie shortlist again this year (eventually), but thought it would be fun to do the Little Rebels award as well. Eight books, of which these are the first four. I’ve read most of the shortlist–I’ll be writing about the next four in the next week or so.


Anne Booth, Girl with a White Dog

A children-learning-about-WWII-and-the-importance-of-tolerance story. That’s a bit reductive, though it is essentially accurate.

Jessie is in year 9, and is learning about World War II as part of a class project. Her father works abroad, something which, hearing the adults around her talk, Jessie blames on immigrants coming to the UK and taking all the jobs. Her grandmother adopts a white German Shepherd, but falls ill soon after (and keeps saying things that make no sense), so that Jessie has to look after the puppy. Eventually her grandmother’s mysterious past, her history project, the cousin Fran’s group of bullies and her best friend Kate’s activism all link up.

There are things here that really work. I’m wary of the collapsing of historical and current events into an overarching argument that these are all manifestations of the same terrible impulses, but Booth gives us enough specifics to partially offset this. The framing project about fairy tales also works—the “modern fairy tale” that Jessie writes for homework is blatant, but still clever. Her voice is funny and dry. And there’s a dark undercurrent to that voice that is the result of her anti-immigrant prejudice, which lasts for a good portion of the book.

I suppose my major issue with Girl with a White Dog is how issue-book-y it feels, which is perhaps an unfair criticism to make of something that is quite openly an issue book. Lessons are stated to us directly—when Jessie has a revelation about prejudice, or about some parallel between the issues she’s reading about and those she’s facing, we are told what it is immediately. And her group of friends is a little too pat—I want to see more kids of colour, queer kids, disabled kids, kids with different sorts of families represented in children’s lit but the particular structure of this plot, and the way it wants to link up various sorts of prejudice, unfortunately enhances the sense of issues being ticked off a list with the introduction of particular characters who all deserve more.

Having said which, a thing that is very well done is Jessie’s relationship with her best friend, Kate. Kate is fond of Jessie’s grandmother as well, is good at maths and speaking to people, is in a wheelchair and plays sitting volleyball at the national level, is very, very political and activisty—Jessie feels vaguely guilty that she isn’t more politically aware, as I suspect most of us do, but consoles herself with the knowledge that not everyone can be good at everything (as I suspect most of us do) and this is Kate’s thing. But then this exchange takes place:

Eventually I stuttered, ‘But … but you won that fight with the bus company. You were in the local paper and everything. It was brilliant. You were brilliant. I thought you liked campaigning.

‘Not campaigning all the time! I want to be lazy, to be nice like you, instead of good old campaigning Kate. And, right now, I just want to be alone, Jess. You’re really not helping.’ And Kate wheeled herself off as fast as she could down the corridor away from me.

I’m quoting this here in part because wanting to be able to be nice is such a simple, painfully accurate description of that feeling. But I think in this book, at this point, it’s a little more important than that. The rest of Girl with a White Dog will be about forgiveness and reconciliation and recognising that we, like other people, are implicated in badness. But this moment between Jessie and Kate isn’t resolved; we’re not allowed to believe that there’s some form of the right words that could make this thing between them go away. I don’t mean to say that they’re not still best friends; if anything, they’re probably more so. But Girl with a White Dog allows Kate her bitterness and perhaps suggests that anger is justified and can sit alongside nobler things like forgiveness.



Craig Pomranz and Margaret Chamberlain, Made by Raffi 

Made by Raffi is about a boy (Raffi) who likes clothes and bright colours and doesn’t like the things that his other classmates seem to, and who worries about what this might say about his gender identity. Then a teacher teaches him how to knit, and he makes a giant stripey rainbow scarf for his dad, who doesn’t seem to mind that it’s about four metres long. He also makes a magnificent cape for the prince character in the school play, impressing everyone at school, so that both friends and family are shown to embrace his creativity.

raffiGood things: Rainbow scarf! The world illustrated by Chamberlain is a fundamentally nice one; Raffi’s school is populated with students and teachers of various ethnicities and degrees of able-bodiedness, girls who play the same sports as boys and girls who don’t (the boys are a bit less diverse in this regard, for obvious plot-reasons) mum and dad both help out in the kitchen, and the only obvious questioning of Raffi’s behaviour comes from Raffi himself. Even where Pomranz’s text tells us that some children on the bus teased Raffi for his knitting, the accompanying image is one of people who are happy and interested (and the scarf, which is really far too long to be practical). And I like that this isn’t a book about queerness and/or gender identity—though the rainbow scarf would make that reading easy—Raffi might well find that he’s queer, or genderqueer (he does ask if there’s such a thing as a “Tomgirl”) but he might easily be a straight, cis kid who likes to make things. All sorts of options are available here. And I really like the spread in which we’re shown how he makes the cape, as if this was an activity book.

Bad things: that this book can be easily summed up in terms of good and bad things that it does, and that so many of the “good” ones (not enforcing restrictive assumptions on people’s bodies, hurrah!) are about avoiding problems that other books have fallen into. It all feels a bit bland, and I can’t imagine really, really wanting to give the book to a child.



Jessica Shepherd, Grandma

Oscar and his grandmother are really close, do a number of activities together and love each other dearly. But Grandma is increasingly suffering from dementia and eventually has to go into a care home, and Oscar must adjust to this change.

Grandma is a picture book, told ostensibly in Oscar’s voice and in a constant present tense that makes it feel like a log book or a diary with gaps between the entries to represent the time between Grandma’s first signs of the condition, her diagnosis, the decision to take her to a care home, the point at which she moves in.

It’s all very simply told, and Oscar’s an unnervingly sweet child. He’s sad when Grandma doesn’t remember him or snaps at him, but we’re not shown any anger, or bitterness at how unfair the situation is for her as well as for him, or really any negative emotion—even his sadness is visible only to be followed with immediate reassurance that she doesn’t really mean it. It’s a deliberate choice for an author to make and I can see why one would. But I do wonder if, alongside its demystifying of dementia, it falls into a sort of telling children what the proper way to react is, rather than giving their own feelings a place to go. (I’m thirty and I have unpraiseworthy feelings over dementia and how it has affected elderly people I love; Oscar’s, what, five?) But that’s the thing, it is about demystifying old age and illness, not about demystifying children’s feelings towards these. On the back cover we’re told that Shepherd’s book “has grown out of her experience in a variety of caring roles” and the story ends with a Q&A about dementia, which rather makes my point for me.

But then there’s the genuinely moving bit where Oscar gets Grandma to tell him stories about herself. “I know them all by heart, so that I can remind her if she forgets one day” (there’s a whole world in that sentence). And the art is rather nice and I love that Grandma, Oscar, and Oscar’s younger sibling all have the same sort of hair.

My real objection to the book has to do with Grandma’s hair though. We’re told that Grandma likes to dress up as she used to do, and that she “loves it when Dad brushes her long, curly hair”. I may have howled a “noooooo” and I think that I was justified in doing so. I’m going to speculate that the author has straight hair.



Chris Haughton, Shh! We Have a Plan 

As has previously been revealed on this website, I love Haughton’s work. The art is just astonishingly cute, the text is often deadpan funny. It is probably unsurprising that I loved this one as well.

Four people (the promotional material says “friends”, but they all look similar and are clearly all looking after the smallest, so who knows?) are walking through the forest and see a bird.

The smallest doesn’t seem to be in on the plan. The others get into position to capture it, and then they “tip-toe slowly tip-toe slowly” (this book is so much fun to read aloud—later they try “climbing slowly climbing slowly” and “paddling slowly paddling slowly”) till they’re near enough to pounce. Three failures later they are somewhat battered and bruised and drenched and nowhere near success. Meanwhile the smallest has offered the bird some bread and gathered a huge flock around him. The others seem ready to take advantage of their companion’s friendliness and catch a few birds for themselves, but the flock turns on them and they have to run away.

So much of this works because of the art. We’re not told why it is that these characters want to catch this bird—are they hoping to eat it? Sell it? Keep it at home? It doesn’t matter. Colour plays a big role, I think; the pink and orange of the bird (and later the yellows and greens of the other birds), shining out against this twilight, purple and blue landscape, is pure desire.


I’m most of the way through the Little Rebels shortlist now and as I continue to write about them I can see words like “preachy”, “didactic”, “issue” coming up over and over. This is something that is, I think, built into the structure of a prize like this—if we go out looking for “books informed by inclusive/anti-discriminatory concerns or those which promote social equality or social justice” these are inevitable. And while I may sound impatient with this at times, I do think that finding and celebrating these books is worthwhile.

But they’re not the only form that such literature can take, and I think something like Haughton’s book is a useful reminder of that. Is it radical because the prey turns on the hunters? Is it radical because the one member of the group to have any success is the smallest? Is it radical because the smallest seems to be motivated by friendliness/kindness? All of those, but they don’t strike me as more fundamental to the book than that it is funny and beautiful and completely charming.

April 20, 2015

Elephants? Feminism? Something.

wen hsu elephant 2Some recent (and very cute) children’s books involving elephants. I think the essence of this column is that elephants are a) adorable and b) fun to draw?



“Not so long ago” a King decides that he wants to know the weight of his pet elephant. Unfortunately, the kingdom doesn’t have the necessary elephant-weighing technology in place, and no one is entirely sure what to do. Various groups of people try to work it out—fruit sellers and jewellers find their weighing machines inadequate, while the rope makers who try to rig up some sort of pulley system find that their ropes just aren’t strong enough. Bureaucrats and scientists fail. Finally a little girl comes up with the solution—to put the elephant in a boat and measure the change in water level, fill the boat with stones until the same effect was achieved, and then weigh the stones.wen hsu elephant 3 CUTEST

It’s a story many of us will have come across before in some form or the other. Geeta Dharmarajan’s version How to Weigh an Elephant, illustrated by Wen Hsu, names the little girl Lilavati and in doing so opens up the possibility that this is the historical Lilavati, the daughter of Bhaskaracharya to whom his Lilavati is addressed. History doesn’t tell us whether Lilavati herself grew up to be a mathematician, but she has often been adopted as a symbol for women in science in India—a 2008 anthology about Indian women scientists is titled Lilavati’s Daughters, for example. Dharmarajan’s book ends with a section on neglected Indian women scientists as well, signalling clearly that it sees books like this one as having an important social role to play.

The “twins” in the title of Kavitha Mandana and Nayantara Surendranath’s A Pair of Twins share neither parents nor a species but they do share a birthday. (Human) Sundari is born on the same day as (elephant) Lakshmi, into a family of Mahouts. The two babies form a lasting friendship and Sundari often pretends to be a Mahout on Lakshmi’s back—but in secret, because being a mahout is a job for a man. Until the Dussehra procession, when the usual elephant is unwell and only Lakshmi can take his place; with Sundari on her back, of course. A Pair of Twins is ‘about’ gender in ways that How to Weigh an Elephant is not; a longer text for slightly older children, it addresses the harm of both masculine and feminine stereotypes. Sundari’s brother would rather be a musician than a mahout, Sundari would prefer not to have to dress up as a man in order to do the job she has finally been allowed to do.

PoT1Both Dharmarajan and Mandana’s texts are helped by some gorgeous illustrations. Wen Hsu’s work won a Katha Chitrakala award in 2011 and uses cut paper and unlikely colours to great effect (and great adorableness). Nayantara Surendranath restricts herself to a more limited palette of browns and creams and pinks with the occasional bolt of blue. Her art is full of detail: the lines on tree bark, the print on a piece of cloth, be it part of a dress, a curtain or a howdah. Where there are no details she adds them in so that plain surfaces become unlikely things of beauty. And the limited palette serves at least one important purpose; when Sundari, having won all her battles, shows up to take her place as the leader of the parade in a very feminine turquoise blue dancer’s sari (turquoise is the book’s word for it but it seems a pity not to use the vastly more appropriate “ferozi”) the image bursts out from the page.

pot2It’s not clear whether elephants have anything to do with the fact that these two books for young readers are strongly feminist. It’s tempting to come up with a theory; popular science suggests that elephant herds are largely matriarchal societies, and that might have something to do with it. As with most things, the true answer probably lies in the fact that elephants are very cute, but that needn’t stop us from speculating.


I didn’t have room here to also talk about An Elephant in my Backyard by Shobha Viswanath and Sadhvi Jawa (and that book isn’t really about gender in any way more obvious than that it has a girl for a protagonist) but it might deserve a separate post soon.

March 19, 2015

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library

This new Murakami novella is so pretty. Some more images here.

From this week’s column.


I’ve known individual libraries to be important to me. The one which was a short enough distance from my house as a child that I could walk there unsupervised so that when I read Roald Dahl’s Matilda that was the building I imagined; the tiny cupboard of a place two blocks from my grandparents’ house in Vasant Kunj that had a complete set of the Asterix comics; the eclectic and bizarrely organised school library where I discovered many of my favourite writers for the first time. Yet I remain bemused by the idea of libraries in general. I love and support the idea of a society where libraries are plentiful, well-funded and well-staffed (in the UK the idea that such a society might be lost seems to be regarded as genuinely world-shattering) but I’m aware that large parts of the world seem to manage without them, and find myself a bit bemused at seeing them thus sentimentalised. Libraries are actual, practical, frequently-used spaces that matter; but the idea of them is often romanticised to the point of being rather annoying.

To fetishise the idea of the library feels like the same sort of thing as fetishising the book itself, and Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library is a beautifully produced thing, just right for being turned into a collector’s piece. A novella turned into a little hardcover book (and priced to match); the front cover has one of the ticket pouches found traditionally in library books; the illustrations are plentiful; the endpapers are marbled. It’s gorgeous. It’s tempting to read it as a reflection of the state of the industry: are ebooks making print books have to work harder? (probably) Is it cynical and blatantly commercial to turn a novella into a separate book? (yes).

But then The Strange Library resists all of this by the type of story it is; the furthest thing from a sentimental paean to books and reading. It’s a horror story set in a library.

MurakamiblackThe unnamed narrator stops by the city library on the way home from school to return his books and look for some new ones. Directed to the building’s basement by an unknown librarian he soon finds himself in the clutches of a strange old man who locks him in a cell with books on Ottoman revenue collection and instructions to memorise them within a month. He learns that at the end of this time the old man will cut off the top of his head and eat his brains. (“If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the payoff be for them?”). There’s horror here, but much of it is quiet and layered—the boy’s faltering acceptance of the old man’s increasingly sinister orders, his unease over the mother and pet bird who won’t know where he is, his memories of the black dog that attacked him as a child. Eventually an escape is planned, and we’re in the territory of children’s fantasy adventure, a genre at which I hadn’t expected Murakami to be quite this effective. Through all of this the illustrations (the whole thing is designed by Suzanne Dean) do quite half the work, altering the mood from silly to scary to both with ease. I’m told that the design of the American and Japanese versions are entirely different, and it’s hard to see how that would be possible without changing the book completely.

As our narrator leaves the building things get darker and darker; not for this story the triumphant escape and happy ending, or even the return to order that are the conclusions to the traditional adventure. We’re left to wonder rather a lot about that black dog.

Even after all of this I’m unconvinced that The Strange Library is much more than a very well-padded short story. But if it is it’s one that reminds us that libraries, like brains, are not always the nurturing spaces we’d like them to be and that, maybe, books aren’t all always that great?