Books For Children (That Aren’t Just For Children!)

Inspired by an article I read in the Guardian (see link below), I thought it was finally time to write about a subject I spend most of my time immersed in- children’s literature. As my job involves facilitating shared reading groups with young people (mainly secondary school students, as I feel less likely to want to throttle someone in that setting and also, for the most part, I quite like working with stroppy teenagers!), reading copious amounts of children’s/young adult books is a necessary part of my role. Whilst I am by no means an expert in this area, I do like to think that I’ve acquired a bit of knowledge about what constitutes a good story for young people. Writing about it during my week off work is probably not the best form of escapism, but, as I’m lucky enough to have a job that revolves around my main hobby, escaping from books was never really my intention anyway!

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/16/childrens-books-are-never-just-for-children

As a passionate advocate of reading for pleasure, I often find it frustrating that talented children’s authors don’t receive more critical acclaim in the realm of literature. Engaging today’s children in the act of reading is a difficult task when there are so many competing forms of entertainment, and yet so many authors are not only able to attract and sustain their interest, but do so by deftly weaving together a multitude of fundamental components- well-rounded characters; universal ‘truths’; important social issues; humour; emotional depth; and an abundance of imagination. Ultimately, the ingredients of a high calibre piece of literature aimed at young people are no different from those of literature for adults, yet children’s authors often go unrecognised when it comes to achieving literary merit. Rather than simply be judged as pieces of fiction, books written for children/young people are ignored or disregarded when it comes to major literary awards, such as the Man Booker, and are generally labelled ‘Children’s Literature’ or ‘Young Adult Fiction’ instead of simply being regarded as ‘Fiction’ or ‘Literature’.

Anyone who read voraciously as a child will know that the stories that make an impact on us as children tend to stay with us for the rest of our lives, and are often re-read over and over. I’ll never forget Susan and Lucy weeping into Aslan’s fur following his brutal death at the hands of the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or Amy’s cry of ‘Oh Jo, how could you? Your one beauty!’ after Jo March sells her hair in order to pay for her mother’s visit to their injured father in an army hospital in Little Women. These stories, amongst others, moulded my personality, shaping my attitude towards the world, and, ultimately cultivated a deep and unrelenting passion for words, stories, and people. Without them, I have no doubt that I would have developed into a very different sort of adult.

Aslan's Death

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a few of personal book/short story recommendations for young people based on my experience of reading with them. There are still many amazing works that I have yet to read, and some of the ones I have listed have been included on the basis of their appeal to children/teenagers rather than their literary merit, but I firmly believe that anything which engages someone in reading has some value. Of course, ‘great’ literature is important, but I don’t think anyone will dispute the role that all books play in forming the foundations from which we build a love of reading. As I work with children who are usually between the ages of 11 and 16, the titles are aimed towards that age range, but some are suitable for younger readers and, of course, as I have greatly enjoyed them myself, I would recommend all to adults!

• Mick Jackson’s The Pearce Sisters always provokes extreme reactions from teenagers and adults! It includes what some might describe as gratuitous violence, so may not be acceptable reading material to some parents, but raises some very interesting questions about gender and morality. I recently discovered a Bafta award winning short animated film based on this short story. It’s only approximately 10 minutes long and is quite amusing, so I’d recommend watching this too (after reading the story!).

The Pearce Sisters Film

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher is a novel that I read for my 30 Before 30 Challenge and subsequently blogged about (if you want to read my thoughts on it, the post is in my April 2014 Archive). It’s a beautiful, tear-inducing read, probably more suited to older, more mature teenagers and young adults, which encompasses such issues as death, grief, terrorism, divorce, alcoholism, and bullying.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan is a fast-paced, fun fantasy-adventure novel which blends mythology with the modern world, making Greek myths more accessible to children in the 21st century.

Percy Jackson

The Secret Garden is a classic tale with timeless appeal. Although recent editions nearly always seem to have a stereotypically feminine design, I’ve discovered that quite a lot of boys also tend to enjoy Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of friendship, nature and positive thinking in early twentieth century England.

• David Almond’s Skellig is one of the best children’s books I’ve read in a long time. Tense yet poetic, it never fails to grip the attention of readers (including me!) within the first few chapters. It could be described as gothic literature, with the whole plot revolving around a ten year old boy’s discovery of a mysterious creature in the garage…

Skellig

• Anthony Horowitz’s short horror stories are fantastic at engaging reluctant readers, particularly boys. The Hitchhiker is always very well-received, and Flight 715 also gets a lot of positive comments. If you’re particular about what your child reads, however, it would be worthwhile reading them before your child does; they could potentially be nightmare inducing!

• Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (or Black and White as it was retitled) is the first in a series of dystopian novels which imagine an alternative world history- one in which black Africans (Crosses) are regarded as superior to white Europeans (noughts). Essentially, it is a powerful and thought-provoking tale of racial segregation with a Romeo and Juliet style love story at its heart.

Noughts and Crosses

There are many others that I would recommend, and, no doubt, numerous fantastic books that I’ve failed to include simply due to the fact that I haven’t yet read them, so if anyone has any questions/personal recommendations, please don’t hesitate to get in touch- it’s always good to share the book love!

Creation, Not Devastation

At the end of 2014, I made a vow to myself- regardless of my social calendar, I would dedicate more time to the act of creativity in 2015. The latter part of last year was so chaotic with thirtieth birthday celebrations, including an amazing Narnia party with two of my best friends, and festive preparations, not to mention the completion of my 30 Before 30 challenge (yes, I did it…in a fashion!), that I was always too tired to summon up the energy necessary to maintain my blog and, consequently, lapsed into a creative rut.

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Of course, we all have good intentions for the year ahead- the desire to change ourselves for the better is just part of human nature-, but they often become lost somewhere in between theory and practice because, let’s be honest, life has a horrible tendency of getting in the way. Following the abysmal attacks in Paris, however, my desire to be creative has intensified. Like so many others around the globe, I often forget to appreciate how lucky I am to live in a society that allows and openly advocates freedom of expression. Though some will be scaremongered into submission by the atrocious acts committed by terrorists, the majority understand that to stop expressing their opinions through an artistic medium is to relinquish their freedom, their identity, and even, figuratively speaking, their existence. After all, the act of creation is synonymous with life – when we stop creating, we stop living.

This year, therefore, I intend to be as creative as I possibly can. Although I normally commit myself to some sort of literature related challenge, my only objectives this year are to increase my poetic and blogging output, writing more about the things that I feel passionate about, and to gain some new skills in the creative arena. After receiving a copy of my most recently published poem on my thirtieth birthday, I would really like to capitalise on last year’s successes by getting more of my work into the public sphere, but I also want to develop skills in other areas too- such as learning a particular form of dance and enhancing my sewing skills.

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Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope that the New Year has brought you happiness and prosperity. Although 2015 may not have started well in the context of world events, let’s summon up some positivity and begin our year as we mean to go on: by embracing the act of imaginative creation, not destruction or devastation.

Time for a Creative Rebirth!

Sitting on Books
In the last few months, there’s been an abundance of cultural trips, copious amounts of reading, and plenty of fun…but no blogging. Although I could provide a whole string of excuses for this, the truth of the matter is simply this- when it comes to sitting down to write, I am a terrible procrastinator.

PoetryMad Hatter's Tea Party

Budapest

Some of the most exciting events of the last few months: going to Latitude; taking part in the Children’s Literature Festival at work (which included a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in the Enchanted Woods!); and a little trip to Budapest!

Daydreaming, checking Facebook/texting friends, and making more cups of tea than necessary are all large elements of my procrastination. I know I am not alone; it seems the majority of the western world indulges in the same time-wasting antics, yet that knowledge does nothing to appease my frustration at my own lack of motivation.

Strangely, however, it seems that my passion for writing has been reignited today. Besides penning a few lines of poetry, the first in quite a while, I also got the urge to write a blog post. Generally, this time of year does tend to have a transformative effect on my levels of creativity, so I can only attribute my desire to write to the gradually changing light and striking colours of the season. After being tired and devoid of creativity for the last few months, I feel as if someone’s flicked a switch and I’ve finally burst back into life!

This sudden outpouring of creativity will not result in me frantically posting numerous 30 Before 30 book reviews, however. Whilst the challenge continues- I am now on book 23 with 10 weeks to go and more optimism than I had a month ago! -, it would be difficult to catch up on documenting all of the books I’ve read through individual reviews. I will endeavour to write short reviews of each in due course, but for now I’m just pleased to be feeling motivated again!

September may be the start of the season of death, yet for some of us, it’s (hopefully!) the catalyst for creative rebirth…

Autumn Celebration!

And The Blog Goes On…

Since my last blog post, life has altered quite significantly. Besides starting an amazing new job, I’ve also had to contend with finding my way around a new city, meeting many new people (including weird men at bus-stops- which, let’s face it, is quite normal for me!), and spending a lot of time on my own. Though it’s been quite mentally draining, I’ve vastly enjoyed my first month in Liverpool, and am definitely feeling much more settled now. Exploring a new city is always exciting, especially when you begin to discover the various gems it has to offer. Having already visited a speakeasy, seen an amazing version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, and revelled in the natural beauty of Sefton Park (which contributed to a minor state of sun-induced delirium), I feel like I’ve started to embrace the natural and cultural landscape of Liverpool. It’ll never replace Yorkshire in my heart, but I’m definitely growing quite fond of it…and the people are lovely too (even the Scousers!).

New housemate

One of my new housemates. And occasional stalker!

 
Unfortunately, all this change has had quite a detrimental impact on my blog. Whilst I’ve managed to maintain my 30 Before 30 challenge, I’ve been a bit lax, to put it politely, on the blogging front. As blogging separately about each of the books I’ve read recently seems like an arduous task, however, I’ve decided to cheat a little and provide a very brief overview of my thoughts on each:

 
Song of Solomon- Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is renowned for her intricate and candid exploration of the black experience, and this book is no exception. Focusing on a young black man’s journey to realise his personal and familial identity in mid-twentieth century America, Song of Solomon is a work of lyrical complexity, with Morrison skilfully blending myth, allegory, song, and a host of, in my opinion, unlikeable characters together to create a novel of enchanting proportions. Although the central protagonist, Macon Dead Jr, or Milkman (so-called because his mother nursed him long past his infancy), is detestable in parts, particularly in his treatment of women, his metamorphosis from boy to man is fascinating and touching. There is so much to love about this novel, it definitely deserves to be read at least once.

SongOfSolomon

 
The View From Castle Rock- Alice Munro
Despite hearing many great things about both the author and the book, I was disappointed to find The View From Castle Rock extremely tedious. As someone who loves anything related to genealogy, I thought that this series of fictional stories based on Munro’s family history would be just the sort of book for me, but I was yawning before I was five pages in! After managing, with some difficulty, to read half of it, I decided to skim-read the last 150 pages. I wish I had something more positive to say, particularly as it’s very uncharacteristic of me to dislike a piece of literature. I’m not going to allow this negative experience of Munro to deter me from reading any more of her works, however. In fact, quite the opposite. I am now determined to find something of merit in her writing!

 
The Secret History- Donna Tartt
In this instance, the many glowing reports I’ve had of this novel are consistent with my own thoughts on it: it was an utterly enthralling read! The Secret History revolves around the lives of six students at a private college in America who become obsessed with the practices of the Ancient Greeks as a result of the influence of their charismatic though somewhat strange tutor. After some of them accidentally kill someone whilst attempting to recreate a Bacchanalian rite, they are forced to murder one of their own in order to keep their secret hidden. Yes, it’s an intellectual read and if you’re not particularly well-versed in the classics, there are some allusions that you will fail to understand, but it is also a thriller that will take hold of you from the very first page.

The Secret History

 

The Old Man and the Sea- Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is a writer that I always felt I should read rather than actually wanting to, hence my inclusion of one of his works on my 30 Before 30 list. Whilst I can see that The Old Man and The Sea might be hugely enjoyable to many people, it was not a particularly exciting read for me. As the story of an unsuccessful Cuban fisherman’s triumph and eventual defeat as he finally catches an enormous fish that drags him out to sea only for it to be eaten by sharks before his return to shore, The Old Man and the Sea is a simple yet effectively written tale exploring the relationship between man and nature. I’m sure that there are various interesting literary interpretations of it, but, on the most basic of levels, I’m afraid to say that it didn’t appeal to me as a reader. Luckily, it’s only a 99 page novella, so I didn’t feel as though I’d wasted too much time reading it!

 

Although I’ve only provided a very vague outline of my thoughts on each novel, I feel as if I’ve now achieved my objective for the week by forcing myself back into the routine of sitting down to blog! There are still a fair few books to work through over the next six months though, so I’d best continue with the next one if I’m ever to complete my challenge. There’s still a heck of a long way to go…

 

30 Before 30: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

Annabel Pitcher

As a teenager the majority of books classified as Young Adult (YA) passed me by. Other than reading a few Point Horror books and the necessary ‘coming-of-age’ Judy Blume novel when I was a pre-teen, I recall making a relatively swift transition from Nancy Drew to Jane Eyre (with a few Mills and Boon pit-stops along the way, courtesy of my uncle’s girlfriend!). Once I had entered the vast realm of adult fiction, I saw no reason to go back, and consequently, I have since realised, probably missed out on some amazing pieces of literature for young people.

Since working with teenagers I’ve made a distinct effort to return to the world of YA fiction and have, on the whole, been pretty impressed with it. So when a secondary school teacher I know recommended Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece I decided to give it a try. Entirely different to the sensationalist fiction of Darren Shan or Stephenie Meyer (which is good in its own right), I was completely blown away by how candid and poignant it was.

Exploring the effects of loss on a 10 year old boy and his family in the years after his sister is blown up by terrorists, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece tackles a difficult subject in a sensitive yet not overly saccharine way. From the opening paragraph, it is apparent that the death of Rose, Jamie’s older sister, has cast an irrevocable shadow over the family, yet Jamie, the narrator throughout, remains detached from the grief that consumes his mother, father, and Rose’s twin sister, Jasmine. Although his dad cannot bear to spread his daughter’s ashes, instead keeping them in an urn on the mantelpiece, Jamie fails to even remember his older sister. Whilst his family disintegrates under the weight of grief, poor Jamie struggles to make sense of a loss that he can never fully understand. .

Delving into a multitude of issues relevant to life in modern Britain- from racism to alcoholism and single parent families- Pitcher’s debut novel reflects just how devastating an impact death can have not only on family life, but also on a child’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Uprooted and not properly cared for, Jamie has to contend with issues of bullying and loneliness in silence as the rest of his family become increasingly absorbed in their misery. Anyone who has ever worked with children will have met a ‘Jamie’ before- a child who arrives at school in the same dirty clothes every day; someone who is never included, no matter how hard he tries; a person who tells elaborate tales or simply remains silent as a means of hiding the reality of his home life. The sad fact is, Pitcher’s fictional story is a brutally honest account of what happens when grief takes over.

Beyond the sadness, there are moments of light relief that will keep younger readers entertained, particularly the parts involving tricks played on Jamie’s new teacher- a seemingly uncaring woman who is almost as horrible to him as his classmates are. The heart-warming friendship that blossoms between Jamie and fellow outcast Sunya, a kind Muslim girl, is also cause for cheer, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

What most struck me about My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece was the way that, despite being labelled Young Adult fiction, it is just as relevant to an adult as to a teenager. The universal nature of death means that we all have to suffer the consequences of grief at some point, yet being an adult does not always prepare you for it any better than a child. Besides being infused with warmth and a welcome sense of reality, the book reminds us that there is no specific formula for grief- we all deal with things differently, we all make mistakes, and, ultimately, we are all just human.

This novel had me in tears at various stages, which, let’s face it, isn’t hard (as regular readers have probably noticed, this has become a frequent occurrence through this challenge!). I’m pretty certain that I’m not the only person to ever cry at My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece though- in fact, I’d defy anyone NOT to get a little glassy-eyed at it! If you’re an animal lover be prepared for some serious sobbing however- a box of tissues might well be necessary. You have been warned!

ginger cat

 

 

 

30 Before 30: The Shadow of the Wind

1232The Shadow of the Wind

Reading like a prose ode to literature, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is a book lover’s dream. It’s been a few weeks since I read it, but one of the most potent passages from the first chapter is still very much embedded in my mind:

‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it…Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend’.

Discovering a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books would be akin to finding heaven on earth for me. If such a secret library actually existed, I might never leave. Except to venture out to the odd party. And to buy an eternal supply of tea and crisps.

For Daniel, the main character of the book, the discovery of this repository of obscure literature in the bowels of Barcelona and his subsequent ‘adoption’ of a long forgotten novel, The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, not only eases the pain of his mother’s death, but begins an obsession that will characterise his transition from boy to young man. When he discovers that a mysterious figure named Lain Coubert (which he later find out is the name of the devil in Carax’s books) has managed to destroy every copy of the novel apart from his own, Daniel starts to investigate the author, Julian Carax, and to piece together the enigmatic story of his life.

Though his detective work often lands him and his trusty sidekick, former Spanish Civil War torture victim Fermin Romero de Torres, in hot water, Daniel continues to attempt to unravel the mystery of Carax’s life- which, he soon discovers, is one that encompasses family tragedy, a doomed love affair, and layers of lies. Like a typical teenager, Daniel ignores the threats of Lain Coubert and a corrupt police officer in order to fulfil this self-imposed mission, ultimately facilitating his own journey to manhood.

Despite the convoluted plotline (which I’ve only really given a bare outline of), the basic idea that a book has the power to catalyse change and transform lives is one that all bookish types cannot fail to appreciate and understand. Other than this, what I really loved about the novel was the sense of community within it- how neighbours rallied round to support each other and stand up for those who were being persecuted in the years after the Civil War- and the use of some classic gothic tropes, such as the archetypal gothic building. Blending the gothic tradition with historical fiction, comedy, and a touch of romance, Zafon’s novel has a bit of everything to keep people enthralled until the end.

The fact that it is also beautifully written means that it is very hard to criticise the novel. If your concentration span is limited, you may find it difficult to follow in parts, but this is quite a minor flaw in my (very biased!) eyes. Ultimately, it made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me think. But, more than all that, it filled me with a sense of belonging; with a sense that I had found a writer who truly understood my reverence for the written word and the hallowed status that books have always had in my life.

There is no question about it: I will definitely be reading The Shadow of The Wind again. And, quite possibly, every other Zafon book I can find.

Read it if you can; it’s a literary gem.