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The second in our new series of Sunday guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors. These guest blogs are designed to show life behind the scenes of a crucial but neglected relationship – the one between a writer and a bookseller. These days, such relationships are more intense and more important, as increasing numbers of authors go on the road to promote children’s books – a goal shared by the booksellers who will contribute to this series.
The Bookcase is a ‘small independent bookshop with a big imagination’ situated in the village of Lowdham, eight miles north of Nottingham. The Bookcase’s proprietor is Jane Streeter (second from right), who runs the shop with a friendly team: Louise Haines, Jo Blaney, myself, Marion Turner and Kendall Turner (pictured left to right above).
Three years ago I (as one of the assistants) began a reading group at our local village school. This coincided with our 10th Annual Book Festival. So, to celebrate, I went in once a month until we had read 10 books. The 12 children read each book and then wrote a review, which formed the basis of a display at our book festival. We read all sorts – from contemporary authors to Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton – and one poetry book. I have used a few different poetry books, but the first was Carol Ann Duffy’s The Hat, which was very timely as I’d handed it out to the children just before she was announced as the Poet Laureate! We’ve also used Gervase Phinn’s There’s an Alien in the Classroom, and others over the three years we’ve been involved in the project.
Each month I went into school so that we could have a discussion, which made the youngsters feel very grown up!
The idea became so popular that I have been approached by other schools, so this year I am working in four schools – always with Year 6 children. The group is aimed at the more able readers. (The thinking behind this is that so much is done to encourage the less able readers: those who are keen readers need some sort of outlet for their enthusiasm.)
This year, I have found a real difference in ability from one school to another. Not only is the reading ability markedly higher in one school, but the children are much more mature. This makes it harder for me to choose appropriate books, so I’m always keen to hear of the experiences of others who work with children of a similar age.
Michael Morpurgo is, of course, unfailingly popular, but I’ve also had real success with Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother and Morris Gleitzman’s Once. In both cases, several of the children have gone on to read the sequels. We have offered a discount to reading group members who have ordered sequels.
Something Cold War-ish must be in my reading water. I seem to be choosing books with a Cold War themes fairly regularly -- David Almond's The Fire-Eaters, which centers around the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cecil Castelucci's Rose Sees Red, which is set in the early 80s with the Cold War tension as a back drop to a friendship that develops between an American and a Russian immigrant, and now, The Apothecary. It's not the side effects of too much dystopian ya for dessert, I promise.
It was for dinner.
Nonetheless, if you find yourself feasting on dystopian but are looking for a little diversity in your dark, The Apothecary serves it up fresh and fun. The story centers around Janie, a teen whose writer parents are marked as Communists during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s and thus forced to leave LA for London where they get jobs writing for the BBC. At her new school, Janie meets a boy, Benjamin, who wants to be a spy, a Russian boy whose father is, and a chemist-apothecary-physicist triangle trying to contain the effects of a nuclear bomb.
There are so many twists, James Bond-like chase scenes, an unexpected apothecarian surprises, replete with a serum that turns humans into birds and another that can make them invisible, as well as the threat of a nuclear bomb that does go off. It's all there in spades.
The biggest leap of faith I found strained in the novel were the serums. The book is so solidly set in the Cold War, that to expect a character, let alone the reader to buy into the fact that chemical compounds can do what alchemists believed they could do hundreds of years ago is tough. The author acknowledges this by having her character say that it would have been hard to believe her friend could turn into a bird if she hadn't actually seen it happen herself. Still, for me, it disrupted the fictional dream. I believed that chemstry and physics could come together to undo the destruction of a bomb, but to tie that right into the magicalness of herbs was a stretch.
Then again, I spent my teens in the Cold War era. I'm bomb scare scarred. Today's young audience will likely have far less trouble taking that leap. If the reader does, the book continues on in a fast-paced, no-holds-barred, edge-of-your-seat ride to the very end.
One other interesting note. The book is told from the perspective of the main character, Janie, albeit as an adult. I haven't run across too many POVs from this angle of late, and Meloy plays it lightly, allowing the adult only to surface at the very beginning and the end to lend the story an air of continuing mystery. It's well-balanced and a great example of how to use the adult POV to a writer's advantage.
For more great reads and winter distractions, sled on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's serving them up hot...and with marshmallows!
Recently Neil Gaiman and Shaun Tan sat down at the Sydney Opera House to discuss their work. The result is a series of interviews on the opera house’s website. I once was speaking to a musician about Shaun Tan and offered the fellow his contact information when Gaiman swoops over and says that not only does he know Mr. Tan but he owns some of his original art. I came this close to yelling at him, “Doggone it, Neil! I’m trying to impress someone over here!” Thanks to @chavelaque for the link.
Kid fans are great. Particularly when they like books. Especially when they make raps about them. Here we have the talented niece of James Kennedy who posted this on her own blog recently. She’s pretty good at holding that camera, rapping, and turning the pages all at the same time.
David Almond is always worth listening to, particularly if he’s speechifying. Here you can find him receiving the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award. Very cool.
I won’t embed it, but the other day Jeanne Birdsall (author of The Penderwicks n’ such) wrote this to me and it is fantastic. Said she: “Did you know that if – on the SLJ on-line home page — you click on BLOGS, rather than on any of the actual blogs (yours, Heavy Metal, etc.), you get this? I can’t figure out which thrills me more — that the SLJ webmaster picked this video, or the spam comments that come after.
There’s a literacy crisis in Canada. Did you know?
One statistic states that “annual school library budgets allow for less than one third of a book per child.” One third. Not in a far off country on the other side of the world but here in Canada, here at home.
According to a survey by the Canadian Teacher’s Federation in 2001, “teachers and principals spent $143 million of their own money to buy books and learning materials for their students.” The generosity of these everyday heroes is unparalleled; however, the need for them to do so shouldn’t exist.
To say I was horrified to learn these startling statistics, is an understatement. This is not acceptable. We, to put it simply, have to do better.
The mission of the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation is a simple one: “[T]o encourage a love of reading in every child and give them the chance to reach their full potential.” To date, the foundation has committed $9 million dollars for high-needs elementary schools.
Slog’s Dad by David Almond (Illustrated by Dave McKean)
Review by: Chris Singer
About the author:
David Almond is the acclaimed author of Skellig, winner of the Whitbread Children’s Award and the Carnegie Medal; Kit’s Wilderness, winner of the Smarties Award Silver Medal, Highly Commended for the Carnegie Medal, and shortlisted for the Guardian Award; and The Fire-Eaters, winner of the Whitbread Award, the Smarties Gold Award and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. He lives in Northumberland.
About the illustrator:
Dave McKean’s distinctive illustrations have graced several children’s books including The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls (New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year and shortlisted for the 2006 Kate Greenaway Medal) by Neil Gaiman. Dave also provided the unique covers for Neil Gaiman’s World Fantasy Award-winning comic series The Sandman. He lives in Kent.
About the book:
Part story, part graphic novel – a tender slice of life and death from the creators of “The Savage”. Do you believe there’s life after death? Slog does. He reckons that the scruffy bloke sitting outside the pork shop is his dad come back to visit him for one last time – just like he’d said he would, just before he died. Slog’s mate Davie isn’t convinced. But how does this man know everything Slog’s dad would know? Because Slog says it really is his dad, that’s how.
My take on the book:
Slog’s Dad is a haunting yet surprisingly beautiful story told both through thoughtful prose and touching illustrations. Through the narration of Slog’s friend, Davie, we get a glimpse into Slog’s state of mind and see how truly devastating the loss of his father has been for him. Although Davie is skeptical the scruffy bloke is Slog’s father returned, he wants to believe it is him, just as we do while reading.
This is quite a short read (about 55 pages), so I don’t want to share too much about the narrative. I’ve read and re-read this three times now. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and although it’s a very melancholy story, I’m fascinated with how McKean and Almond have weaved this complex tale.
The book purposely alternates between prose and illustrations, and both uniquely reveal different parts of the same story. McKean’s illustrations are stunning and put us inside Slog’s head, showing us how he’s been coping with the enormous loss of his father. Almond’s prose fills us in on the details prior to and after Slog’s dad’s passing.
This is my first experience reading Almond and McKean. I’m interested in checking out their previous work. I’m not sure if this book is meant as a kid’s book. I saw where it was recommended on Amazon for kids ages 4-8. Not that it can’t be shared with kids that age, I just don’t think they’ll understand it. I could be wrong though. My first guess would
Penguin has unveiled its plans for Skellig author David Almond's first novel for adults, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, with separate cover looks for the Viking and Puffin editions and a double-facing publicity campaign.
The story is narrated by Billy Dean, who lives in the fictional town of Blinkbonny. He finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world following the disappearance of his father, and he also comes to learn what happened on the day he was born.
What a book. What a beautiful, thought-provoking book.
I will say that I didn't like the last two stories of the book, which was frustrating. All of the stories use metaphor and symbolism to varying degrees (some intentionally, some not) and I didn't care for the taste of the final two. I don't want that to discourage you from reading the book - the rest of the stories are wonderful, and perhaps you'll even enjoy them all.
It is a remarkable little book. On the surface, it contains ten stories; but there are stories within stories. It gives you this feel of depth and magnitude. Each story made me feel differently, and they all made me think. One even made me ache a little, it was so good.
This would be a great pick for a book club. There's loads of discussions in here waiting to happen. Oh - and it made me want to take up photography. Perhaps I will.
Airy illustrations, playful, British dialogue and sprightly dipping, gliding narrative give flight to a zany father-daughter adventure that dances delicately between tenderness, tomfoolery, hope and despair landing lightly in the comfort of allied abandon.
You can read the first three chapters of this book here.
While trawling through my sadly neglected Google Reader (these late running Sox games are killing me!) I came across this piece from the BBC. For me, the draw is the appearance of John Simms (also known as The Master, for those of you who are not Whovians)as the dad.
I know I've said this before, but I am so leery of book to film adaptations. It seems that there is less and less of a relation
I read Kit's Wilderness by David Almond for my YA lit class last summer. I didn't like it.
I read Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd this weekend and absolutely loved it.
But, when I was finished Bog Child on Monday morning and was thinking about it (because it is a book that stays with you) I was struck by the similarities in the stories, and how one was so much more successful than the other.
Kit's Wilderness is the story of Kit, who moves to an English mining town to help take care of his elderly grandfather. He and his friends play the game of Death, to scare themselves. His grandfather tells him the stories of the mines, of his family. He develops a relationship (not friends, but almost) with the school troublemaker. He writes a story about a pre-historic cave family that's woven in throughout the main story.
Look, Kit's Wilderness is a Printz winner and I haven't liked the other books by Almond I've read. The story was good. But... it was heavily layered and full of symbolism and parallels. I don't mind that--it usually makes a good story, but the craft of the story was just so obvious. I could see what Almond was doing as I was reading it. When the craft of a story is so blatant that I notice it as I'm reading? Then I can't enjoy the story. I don't want such things to be obvious until I put the book down and start thinking. In this, the parallels were SO OBVIOUS. The book should come with a frying pan, because it kept hitting you over the head.
Now, Bog Child is completely different.
Fergus lives in Northern Ireland, near the border with Ireland in 1981. One day he finds a body in the bog and assumes it's a victim of the increased violence since Bobby Sands died. But, the body in the bog turns out to be from the Iron Age. Fergus must navigate life in Northern Ireland with a hunger-striking brother in prison, being recruited into IRA activities, and the archaeologists trying to discover the story of the body he dreams about at night.
So the similarities are:
Mood--Kit's Wilderness gets its bleakness from the winter season and mining landscape. Bog Child's is from the political undercurrents and family tension.
Pre-historic Story--Kit writes a story about a cave family that's woven through, Fergus dreams the life of the Bog Child leading up to her death.
Parallels--Both have several parallel stories and layers.
The story Kit's writing in English class parallels what is going on in his day-to-day life in a way that's so obvious I couldn't handle the book. Bog Child is subtler--Fergus's brother is starving himself in prison, the Bog Child is living through a time of famine, and there are subtle hints that Cora might have an eating disorder, starving herself for another reason (although this is NEVER said and might be me reading more into the text, but I'm willing to write a pretty strong paper on why I think this is so.)
All in all, Kit's Wilderness left me cold, while Bog Child haunts me. I had to force myself to finish the first (hello homework!) and couldn't put the second down.
Last week I was at an IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) event that celebrated the nomination of author, David Almond, and author/illustrator, Michael Foreman, for next year’s top prize in international children’s literature – the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Winners will be announced at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in March 2010 and the Awards will be presented at the IBBY World Congress in Santiago de Compostela.
It’s given biennially by IBBY to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. David Almond and Michael Foreman, nominated by the British Section of IBBY, are amongst nominees from more than 50 other national sections. So the competition is tough! Winners are the grandads and grandes dames of the industry. The only time since it’s inception in 1956, that it’s been won by the UK was when Anthony Browne won it for Illustration in 2000 and when Aiden Chambers and Quentin Blake won Author and Illustrator titles respectively in 2002.
It was compelling to listen to both David Almond and Michael Foreman. David spoke of how the idea of Skellig grew from his Mum feeling under the ridges of his shoulder blades and telling him these were the bumps from which his angel wings grew. That’s powerful stuff… a few words from a mother to a receptive child and years later a story of such magnitude. It made me wonder if I’d sprinkled enough stardust over my own sons.
David is a true author’s author. He loves pages, full stops, comma’s, shapes of paragraphs, shapes of sentence – and has been known to reduce his pages to a size where the print is merely a grey outline for the sheer pleasure of looking at the shape and physicality of the print on the page. All this is quite childish he says. ‘But that’s why we write for children because we retain the childishness in us.’ He believes… ‘writing is about having and communicating visions. Children are quite comfortable with this.’
Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe but when I woke up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five. Abracadabra. – is how Emma Donoghue’s Man Booker shortlisted novel, Room, begins. Anyone who has watched a four year old laboriously write the number 4 ¾ will know how important it is from being four and not quite there – to being the new persona you magically change to at five.
In her short story, Child’s Play, Alice Munroe has a slightly different take. Every year when you are a child you become a different person. Generally it’s in the fall, when you re-enter school, take your place in a higher grade, leave behind the muddle and lethargy of the summer vacation.
Yesterday, the last day of September, saw me waving goodbye (like so many mums in September) to my son as he started new school. I wasn’t quite the anxious mum… he’s 38 after all... but as Keren David wrote in her blog earlier in September ‘It’s a big day.’ And it was! After fourteen years in the Advertising Industry, he was off to do an MA in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University.
The first event for the Course was part of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival where David Almond was in conversation with Julia Green, the MA Course Director as well Writer in Residence for the Festival. There’s no one who loves words more than David Almond and no one with more passion and energy for doing what he believes in doing.
David was talking about his new book, My Name is Mina, which follows the life of Mina before she appeared in Skellig and is a playful exposure of his writing process. He announces:
Staring into space is a good thing to do. Words aren’t words but are visions. The book is neat and tidy but the mind is messy. There is no better place for a writer to be than the children’s book world because it’s so playful. On asked whether he plans, he shakes his head. Does a bird plan its song? On the way words fall on the page, he says he minimizes his pages to see the shape of the print on the page.
All this and much more. He doesn’t use the words – energy and passion – but this is what comes through in everything he says. Energy and passion and playfulness.
I envy my son at the start of something so exciting. If only I could write between those Gothic spires of Corsham Court and wander between the green gravestones and peacocks. Abracadabra… what a change it might be!
And abracadabra what a year my son has ahead of him!!!
1 Comments on Abracadabra - Dianne Hofmeyr, last added: 10/1/2010