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!

Advertisements

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.

30 Before 30: Norwegian Wood

Norweg 1 Norweg 2

Many of Haruki Murakami’s readers were disappointed by Norwegian Wood when it was first published in 1987, believing it to be a ‘betrayal’ of what his work stood for. In a departure from his usual form, Murakami seemed to be embracing Japanese mainstream autobiographical fiction and a conventional love theme, his narrative uncharacteristically simple and realistic. As a newcomer to Murakami, I can, of course, only judge Norwegian Wood on its own merits- and far from being just a simple love story, I would describe it as a lyrical and evocative example of modern Japanese literature.

When 37 year old Toru Watanabe hears the opening bars of an orchestral version of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ during a flight, he instantly feels pain. The favourite song of Naoko, his first love, transports him back to a time during his adolescence when love and grief were painful yet necessary rites of passage. Though Toru ‘often tried to write’ about his experiences, he ‘couldn’t produce a line’. It is only with the passing of time and the fading of memories that the novel’s main character is able to truly reflect upon and start to understand his experiences as a young man.

The rest of the novel takes the reader on an interesting linear journey into Toru’s past. Set against the backdrop of late 1960s Tokyo, Norwegian Wood tells the story of a young student who is seemingly torn between the emotional ties of the past and the possibilities of the future, as embodied by two women- fragile Naoko, the girlfriend of his dead best friend Kizuki, and vivacious Midori, who he meets at uni. While one woman is mentally unstable and sexually reticent, the other represents modern woman- sexually free and unconventional. Whether Murakami was intending to make a political point about the social and historical evolution of Japan through these two characters is unclear, but the Japan of his novel is certainly one that is undergoing a period of turbulence and transformation.

Norweg 3

Haunted by the suicides of both Kizuki and, it later emerges, her older sister, Naoko is unable to survive in the world of student uprisings and casual sex that the Japan of the Sixties has become, entering a mental ‘retreat’ in an attempt to remedy her problems. Just as Kizuki died at 17, Naoko seems to undergo a metaphorical death which prevents her from maturing into adulthood- failing to progress, and actually becoming increasingly rooted in the past. Although Toru tries to support her through this with regular letters and visits to the retreat, Naoko eventually takes her own life, hanging herself in the surrounding woods- the place where she last walked with Toru. Finally, the bird has flown (those Beatles fans among you should understand that reference!), leaving Toru free to continue his journey into adulthood.

While Naoko’s death is the catalyst for a bleak period in Toru’s life, you can’t help but feel a sense of relief that he has finally been released from a romantic purgatory to pursue a future with the unconventional Midori, whose love for him is obvious from the very beginning. In contrast to the dark and dismal presence of beautiful but troubled Naoko, Midori, whose name means ‘green’, brings colour to the story with her lively exuberance and overt sexuality. From the moment she was introduced to the story, I couldn’t help but hope that Naoko would somehow ‘disappear’ to make way for a blossoming relationship between Toru and Midori!

In typical literary fashion, however, Murakami doesn’t provide a clear-cut ending; there is no certainty of a ‘happy ever after’ following the death of Naoko. Ringing Midori from a phone box in the final paragraph of the novel, Toru is left confused and bewildered when she asks ‘Where are you now?’ Unsure of where he is, the novel ends with Toru calling out for Midori ‘from the dead centre of this place that was no place’. Like Naoko, it seems that the grief he has suffered through the suicides of two of the people closest to him threatens to engulf him. While we know that Toru reaches adulthood, Murakami never clarifies whether he embraces the future through a relationship with Midori, or remains stuck in the past, metaphorically walking in the snowy woods where he spent his last moments with Naoko.

snowy-woods1

This is part of the book’s ultimate appeal, however. Philosophical in its exploration of grief and the way that the past affects us, Norwegian Wood raises ideas that adolescents and adults alike can relate to, provoking questions about the nature of love and life. Intensely readable and emotionally engaging, it never disappointed me. In fact, quite the opposite; I loved it! Though I am aware that most of his work is very different to this, reading Norwegian Wood has definitely instilled a desire within me to read more of Murakami’s books. I’m just not sure when I’m going to find the time…

30 Before 30!

As my 29th birthday is imminent, I’ve recently been wondering how to make the last year of my twenties significant. There’s an abundance of things I’d love to do before reaching my thirties- seeing the Northern Lights being a prime example- but, given my current precarious financial situation, it’s highly implausible I’d attain any of them!

As a self-confessed bookworm, my thoughts immediately turned to books. Having already completed the challenge of reading the equivalent of a book a week during 2012, achieving (a quite laudable, I think) 50 out of 52, I decided that a challenge of a literary nature would be more attainable, far cheaper, and notably less scandalous than some of the ideas I was contemplating! Although I’ve probably consumed hundreds of amazing books through the years, there are many great ones that I still haven’t read, either because the subject matter doesn’t appeal to me, or I’ve just ‘not got round to it’ yet. Thus, I decided that my challenge would involve reading books that I feel I ought to have read before reaching 30. And so, ‘30 Before 30’ was born…

Selecting 30 books to read in a year was actually more difficult than I’d envisaged- many contemporary works, the majority of classics, and a lot of seminal texts have already formed part of my degrees. Whilst I managed to compile a list of around 15, I was struggling to think of others; the Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list is good as a checklist, but involves seemingly endless research! In the end, Facebook friends came to my rescue. After requesting book recommendations, I received a fair few ideas to help me complete the first stage of my challenge. Unfortunately, not everyone’s recommendation made it onto the list (sorry to anyone whose suggestion didn’t- I will endeavour to read them at some point, even the phenomenon that is Fifty Shades…!), but I did try to use as many as possible, concentrating on just fiction in order to make it easier.

As a result, my final list consists of a combination of fiction I really want to read before reaching the big 3-0, and other people’s recommendations. There’s a decent variety of books, from classical literature to teenage fiction, and I intend to blog about every single one!

Here’s the definitive ’30 before 30′ List:

1. The Odyssey- Homer

2. The Master and Margarita- Mikhail Bulgakov

3. The Secret History- Donna Tartt

4. Murder on the Orient Express- Agatha Christie

5. Song of Solomon-Toni Morrison

6. Possession- AS Byatt

7. The Shining- Stephen King

8. Norwegian Wood- Haruki Murakami

9. Anna Karenina- Leo Tolstoy

10. Brave New World- Aldous Huxley

11. The Satanic Verses- Salman Rushdie

12. Fingersmith- Sarah Waters

13. Lady Chatterley’s Lover- DH Lawrence

14. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy- Helen Fielding

15. The Old Man and the Sea- Ernest Hemingway

16. The Color Purple- Alice Walker

17. 1984- George Orwell

18. The View from Castle Rock- Alice Munro

19. The Famished Road- Ben Okri

20. The Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver

21. The Hunger Games- Suzanne Collins

22. The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared- Jonas Jonasson

23. Jamaica Inn- Daphne du Maurier

24. Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle – Vladimir Nabokov

25. Shadow of the Wind- Carlos Ruiz Zafon

26. House of Leaves- Mark Z.Danielewzi

27. The Wasp Factory- Ian Banks

28. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece- Annabelle Pitcher

29. The Cuckoos Calling – Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

30. The Name of the Rose- Umberto Eco

20131117_190135

Wish me luck!

Gothic Reads

After indulging in a bit of Halloween fancy dress this weekend, followed by a seasonal Tim Burton offering (Sweeney Todd, to be precise), I decided it was time to spook myself out with some gothic literature. Here are some brief overviews of a few of my favourite scary reads, in no particular order, if you want to fire your imagination on these dark nights…

Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

wuthering-heights

A gorgeously atmospheric ‘love’ story based on the gothic tradition of the late eighteenth century, Wuthering Heights is eerie rather than terrifying, and strangely hypnotic- haunting you with questions long after you’ve read it. Featuring implied necrophilia, possible incest, and a myriad of other gothic characteristics, it is memorable on the basis that the mysteries it presents to the reader are never truly solved, remaining instead, like the ghosts of the characters themselves, at the heart of the dark and dramatic landscape that Bronte created.

nb. If you find the passages of Joseph’s dialect a bit hard-going, don’t worry…even those of us who are native to Yorkshire struggle to understand it!

The Turn of The Screw- Henry James

Turn of the Screw

Horror stories are always much creepier when they involve children…

This story of a governess and her two wards, set in a secluded old mansion, is unsettling not just because of its supernatural elements, but because you’re never quite sure who to believe, and, as a result, remain on edge at all times. Is the governess experiencing a mental breakdown, or are the ghosts of former members of the household really haunting her? Are the children as sinister as they appear, or has the governess become obsessed with the idea that evil forces are at work, corrupting their innocence? Whether you read it as a psychological thriller or as a ghost story, the Turn of the Screw is an indisputable gothic gem, destined to make you ponder the reliability of both the narrator and the human mind.

The Little Stranger- Sarah Waters

The-Little-Stranger

When I first read this, on a dreary night in the dead of winter, I eventually lost all sense of reason (not that I had much in the first place!), finding myself terrified of even going to the toilet alone!

Based around the fading fortunes of a formerly wealthy family in 1940s Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is the story of a series of strange and spooky happenings that eventually lead to their downfall. Characterised by the traditional gothic tropes of decline, decay and decrepitude, this contemporary horror slowly builds up momentum, the tension becoming tighter and tighter, until you feel as though your nerve, like the once beautiful house that the novel centres around, is beginning to crumble!

As in The Turn of The Screw, much of the horror comes from the idea that a child may be at the root of the supernatural goings-on. Like most ghosts stories I’ve read, it is uncanny rather than overtly scary, but the creation of a wonderfully tense atmosphere is what makes The Little Stranger so utterly compelling!

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories- Angela Carter

Thebloodychamber1

A series of gothic narratives inspired by traditional fairytales, which, in turn, inspired my own fancy dress attire! Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast all feature here, though in a slightly different form to the conventional tales. To categorise Carter simply as a ‘feminist’ writer would be doing her a disservice; this collection of short stories is sensual, dark, and dense with the most opulent imagery. Yes, her writing is undeniably feminist in tone and plot, but it also rich, abstract and enlightening, encouraging you, whatever your gender, to explore the many nuances of human nature. Whilst fairytales are conventionally quite black and white, Carter’s stories are a vivid array of colours, constantly presenting you with alternative perspectives, catalysing multiple questions, and often offering no definite answers. They may not terrify you, but these stories are perfect for creating a suitably gothic atmosphere for the season of darkness.

Of course, there are lots of other options to explore; these are just my personal favourites. As a fan of the gothic, I’ve read the majority of the classics- The Castle of Otranto; The Monk; Dracula-, but am always on the lookout for more spine-tingling spookiness, so recommendations are welcome, whatever time of year it is!

To finish, I’ll leave you with my version of Little Red Riding Hood:

Little Red Pic

Happy Halloween!