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Out in the depths of the Spooniverse Space Dog is getting read to return home following a long mission sorting out planetary problems in the Dairy Quadrant. Just as he starts to unwind a distress call comes through on his Laser Display Screen. Without a moment’s hesitation our super hero, Space Dog, jumps to and rescues the occupant of a flying saucer drowning in an thick ocean of cream on a nearby planet. But what’s this?
It turns out he’s saved his sworn enemy: Astrocat.
Will they be able to put aside their differences as another cry for help comes in over the space ship tannoy? Will teamwork triumph as they face terror together?
Space Dog by Mini Grey is an anarchic, adrenalin-packed adventure of The Highest Order. Utterly and joyously playful, wildly and lavishly imaginative, this dynamic and delightful journey exploring space and friendship is sublime.
Grey’s witty language, from the hilarious exclamations made by Space Dog (“Thundering milkswamps!”, “Shivering Stilton!”) to the deliciously outlandish names of rare alien life forms (the Cruets of West Cutlery, the Fruitons of Crumble Major) has had us all giggling time and again, even on the 15th reading of Space Dog. Her pacing is timed to perfection, with dramatic stretches interspersed with moments of great relief and humour, drawing readers, listeners, grown-ups, children ever more closely in to Grey’s fantastic, phenomenal universe Spooniverse.
Grey’s illustrations are equally packed with panache. From the detailing given to brand labels and packaging (whether on space food or game boxes) to her powerful use of suggestion (look out for what is almost missing off the page on the spread immediately before Space Dog and Astrocat land on Cheesoid 12, or the shadow redolent with threat as they turn to leave the Cheesy planet), Grey’s illustrations richly illuminate the world she has built to share with us, giving enormous pleasure every time they are returned to.
Although there are echoes of super hero comic strips and silent movies with their intertitles, dramatic soundtracks and expressive emotions theatrically mimed, Mini Grey’s visual and verbal style is truly unique. Spirited and inventive, Space Dog is an outstanding book and fortunately you can find it right here right now in our very own universe.
Every single page turn of Space Dog was met with “Mummy, can we do that??!!”, whether it was making a planet out of cereal packets, coming up with a recipe for supper based on the Spaghetti Entity in the Pastaroid Belt, designing our own version of Dogopoly, rustling up Astrocat’s cake, making spewing tomato ketchup volcanoes, or playing with fondue. In the end we settled for making spaceships for the characters in the book, and flying them over our patio.
We dressed up as astronauts ourselves, making space suits from disposable painting overalls, decorated with electrical tape and completed with control panels from cardboard.
Once appropriately attired we were ready to launch our space ships. Unlike Pop Goes the Page we used nylon bead thread rather than wire to make a zip line, partly because this is what we had to hand, but also because it’s extremely smooth and there are no issues with kinking. One end was tied to the bathroom window, the other to the end of the washing line in the garden.
Soon spaceships were zooming all over our patio…
Later we turned our hand to making hats for a fruit and vegetable parade, inspired by the hat competition which Space Dog has to judge:
Other activities you could try inspired by Space Dog include:
Making space ships big enough for kids (and their grownups?) to fit in. A large cardboard box, a roll of tin foil and some plastic lids or moulded plastic from biscuit boxes is all you need to get you started. (Here’s one we made earlier).
Reading the extraordinary graphic novel Laika by Nick Abadzis. This is more for us grown ups than the kids (though my 10 year old has read it) but I can’t resist recommending it whilst I’ve got a chance.
Would you like to go into space if you had the chance?
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Space Dog by the book’s publisher.
Sharing something beautiful which means a great deal to you can be an awkward, even embarrassing thing to do. It can feel like going out on a limb. You take the risk of appearing sentimental and perhaps even slightly loopy.
Quite why this should be the case, I don’t know. After all, in trying to offer a special moment or experience, all the giver wants is for you to feel something of the same joy, calm, delight and warmth. But it’s a vulnerable moment, full of potential for dreams to be trampled on.
As a parent I’ve sometimes found myself in the situation where, just for a moment , I want my kids to take me seriously , to meet me as a friend and to fall in love with what I’ve fallen in love with. Don’t get me wrong, of course I want them to have their own opinions and discover their own places and times of magic. But I also want to gift them moments of golden glow inside them, serve up nuggets of warmth that will stay with them always, through bad times and good when remembering times and places that are somehow beautiful.
It happens a lot with books of course – I’ll start books I loved as a child with bated breath: What will the kids make of them? Sometimes it happens with music, and also locations with views or spaces that take my breath away or inspire excitement or awe.
A father decides that his child is old enough to be shown the universe, and takes him on a night-time walk through the town and out into an open space far from street lights where they can watch the stars together and marvel in the sparkle and space and silence. But what does the child make of all this?
The bright intensity of beauty is made bearable with bucket loads of dead pan humour. An extra pair of socks is needed because – it turns out – the universe is pretty cold (‘“Minus 263 degrees,” Dad said‘). The universe turns out to be fairly easy to find; with echoes of Neverland “the way there was straight ahead and then to the left.” And when they finally arrive at the destination picked out by Dad, “I had a feeling I’d been here before, that this was the place where people walked their dogs.”
Indeed, there is a final twist to the story which brings everyone back from interstellar dreams to everyday reality with quite a bump, brilliantly adding a layer of laughter to a moment of intimacy and affection; Father and child do get to create a special shared memory that will stay with them all their lives, but it may not be quite that which the Dad had anticipated!
Pitch-perfect words deserve exceptional illustrations, and Eva Eriksson’s soft and dreamy pencil work only enriches Stark’s text. Muted tones predominate, with the exception of an intense blue for the night time sky, giving those spreads extra impact. The story is told as a first person narrative – the child retelling the entire experience, and the illustrations also emphasise the child’s view of the world; (s)he is often looking in a different direction to his/her father, picking up on other things of interest, whether that’s the liquorice on sale in the shop or the abandoned trike in the park, I couldn’t help smiling broadly at the different facial expressions in father and child when first they gaze at the vastness of the stars above them.
[I think it is worth noting that although some may assume the child is a boy, the text does not assert this. Indeed, given the first person narrative, there’s no need for gendered pronouns when referring to the child, who could in fact be a girl. This possibility is one of the great things about this story and translation.]
When Dad Showed Me the Universe is a very clever, moving and extremely funny book about parental love. In fact, in sharing it with you here on the blog, I feel a little like the father in this beautiful book. I so want you too to gasp in delight, smile brightly and feel that sense of magic settling on you when you read this. I can’t give you starlight, but I can wholeheartedly recommend you find a copy of When Dad Showed Me the Universe without delay.
The hilarity in When Dad Showed Me the Universe has ensured that it is a book my kids have wanted to share multiple times. But already after the first reading they could see my thinking: Were they going to get to see the universe too?
First I prepared…
A perfect universe-gazing pack
A tarpaulin (to put on the ground in case it is damp)
A camping mat for each person
A sleeping bag for each person
A red torch – we used a back bike light, but you could use a normal torch with red acetate taped over or held in place using an elastic band. By using red light, your eyes will adjust more quickly to the darkness.
Hot water bottles and hats for extra cosiness
This pack was left in the garden shed whilst I kept an eye on the weather forecast for a few days, looking out for a clear night. When one came along, I was all ready to go into slightly crazy mode and tell my kids that even though they had their pyjamas on, we were going into the garden in the dark.
I didn’t take many photos as the idea was to disconnect from all the buzz we normally have going on in our lives, and just to relax watching the stars twinkling.
We were super snug and spent about 40 minutes just gazing, sometimes chatting, sometimes just being quiet.
I’m no good at night-time photography (see above). What we saw wasn’t quite like this…
Photo: Scott Wylie on Fiickr Creative Commons
…but we did all feel a sense of awe and peace in a way that took me by surprise.
We didn’t listen to any music whilst we were outside, but here is a marvellously celestial playlist:
Asking your friends and neighbours for their tips on the most beautiful place they know nearby, and then committing to visiting it. Maybe you’ll discover new places and make new memories. I found even just asking myself (and the kids) what’s the most beautiful place near where I live got us thinking hard and engaged in quite lively and at times suprising conversation.
What’s your happiest memory from going somewhere special with a parent or a child?
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.
Packed with perky Dr Seuss-esque rhyme, Spots by Helen Ward (Spots in a Box in the US) is a very funny exploration of one guinea fowl’s quest for his missing spots.
His plumage is not like the others so he sends off for dotty supplies: he wants to fit in by matching his friends. Boxes of all sorts arrive, filled with spots of different colour and size, but will any of them be spot on and what he thought he needed?
This is an amazingly illustrated, stunningly produced book about how one guinea fowl’s quest to be like all the others leads him to discover that we don’t all need to be the same to get along; smiles, not colour of spots, is what brings us together.
Helen Ward’s text is a delight to read aloud, full of bouncing, lively word play. Her illustrations, detailed and finely painted, zing off uncluttered white backgrounds, giving them a real sense of impact with each page turn. Not only beautiful to look at, they are also funny! From the guinea fowl with a box on his head to his dancing as he wears silvery, sparkly spots, there’s something reminiscent of the great black and white comedy heroes like Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton in the bird’s characterisation.
With die cut holes, foil and sparkle, this book has been produced with great attention to detail. The pages are such that you will want to explore them with your fingers as well as eyes as you read or listen (there’s even a spread where you’ll want to get out your pencils and make your own mark – the illustration will lure you in).
Humorous and inventive, with a subtle message about diversity and finding out who you are, Spots is a prize-worthy picture book.
We decided to create our own flock of guinea fowl each with their own style of spots. I created a guinea fowl silhouette which we printed and cut out – you can do exactly the same by downloading this left-facing fowl and this right-facing one (in pdf format).
We then let ourselves loose with spotty and dotty ideas, mixing stickers with printing (corks and lids), using the hole puncher to create mini dots to glue on, ink splats, collage circles, buttons, sequins – anything went as long as it was spotty or dotty.
All in all this made for a rather grand flock – imagine how well this could work in a classroom or group setting?!
Dotty Dimples by G.H.Green/arr.Bill Cahn – for three xylophones!
Other activities which would go well with Spots include:
Dressing up with spots. I know my girls would go mad for a box full of dot stickers and permission to cover themselves in them. I think it would look pretty cool too, especially if they were wearing something monochrome. A perfect rainy day activity!
Using left over plastic eggs from Easter and some feathers to make your own toy guinea fowl, using this image as a starting point (just add spots!)
Joining the dots. There’s a dot-to-dot guinea fowl in Spots, but rather than drawing in the book, why not print off some dot-to-dot activity sheets if you and the kids enjoy joining the dots.
Reading Elmer by David McKee; this is another story with a similar tale about being different and yet finding a way to feel happy.
Do you go in more for spots or stripes? What are your favourite picture books about either?
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.
It is with deep sadness that I heard about the death of my hero, Terry Pratchett, today. Terry has played the lead role in the books I read, and write, for many years. The world of fantasy will never be the same without him. Terry had a style and wit that no one will ever be able to replicate, he was a true genius.
I hope that Terry’s personification of DEATH met him with the love and respect Terry so richly deserves. Terry has moved on from the mortal plane, but will live forever in the hearts and libraries of all his fans.
A great man, and a fantastic author. We will not see his like again. My deepest sympathy goes out to Terry’s wife, Lyn, and to his family and friends.
Enjoy your afterlife, Terry. It is very lucky to have you…
What’s Inside? by Isabel Minhós Martins and Madalena Matoso, translated by Isabel Alves and Bergen Peck is a simple and yet clever, funny and honest look at the very stuff of life; the clutter, the detritus we accumulate in our pockets, stuff into in the back of drawers, let lurk around in the bottom of our bags.
Part spotting-game, part memory-exerciser, What’s Inside is a slice of family life which allows readers and listeners to play detective. First, a double page spread questions what we might find in a given location (including ‘Granny’s beach bag”, your coat pocket and bedroom wall), before we turn the page to find recognisable treasure; old bus tickets, pieces of lego, bits of plastic toy, string, the odd coin, a dirty tissue or two. The prediction game alone is great fun, but Martins has made it even more enjoyable by sneaking in some unexpected items, by posing extra questions which get you to go back and look again at what you’ve found, by making connections which link the different handfuls of bits and pieces pulled up and out into the daylight from where they’ve been gathering those little bits of crud which get stuck under your fingernails.
Replete with opportunities for discussion, laughter and moments of satisfaction (not only from recognition but also as a result of successful discoveries and problem solving), this is a delightful book, with bold and stylish illustrations, which will appeal across a wide age range, and especially to any children who love to collect and hoard, to classify and arrange their special things.
I don’t have a handbag as such, but I never leave the house without my rucksack…
Here’s my kitchen counter; can you spot the samovar, bag of pistachios, and kitchen waste waiting to go to the allotment compost bin?
Somehow showing what is inside my fridge seems like baring my soul!
Can you spot what really shouldn’t be in the fridge??
Creating a museum of clutter (and thereby getting the kids to tidy up bits and pieces stuffed in various nooks and crannies): Get the kids to empty out some of those spaces where things invariably get stuffed (like behind the bed) and lay it out like a museum, labelling the treasure that has been found.
Summary : Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised. With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.
Review: Simon has been emailing Blue for some time. And he may be falling in love with him. When the emails are discovered by Martin, he is blackmailed into trying to set Martin up with Abby or risk being outed.
I've had this on my radar a while because cute funny stories with queer characters are definitely right up my street.
I love Simon to pieces. I totally understand where he comes from, with his love of grammar and his ensembling in plays, and his sweet personality. The rest of the characters are just as good. Abby, Leah, and Nick were great friends, Cal was adorable too, and everyone spoke like they should and everyone was real.
I liked the constant mystery of who Blue was, and when we find out, it wasn't who I expected but the scenes afterwards are perfect.
The tone of writing is perfect. There’s many relatable experiences to do with many aspects of teenage life, and it’s done with a mix of thought provoking things and also humour and also seriousness when needed.
It's hugely quotable. I could probably make a tumblr with all the brilliant quotes from this novel. I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to quote without breaking copyright law, so I’m just going to say “read it” and give special mentions to the conversation with Blue from which the title comes from and the bit and "White shouldn't be the default any more than straight should be the default. There shouldn't even be a default."
Only thing that I did not understand: the homecoming scene a quarter of the way through which left me really confused. Luckily, Becky told me what it is (where school alumni come back to play a football game) and my confusion led to amazement that Americans really do take school sports seriously enough to have a parade for these things (I thought homecoming was an excuse for a dance and everything else about it was a myth). This isn’t a major thing in the novel, but it got me for a long time.
This review doesn’t the book justice, because I can’t put into words how brilliant it is. It’s not even one specific thing-just the general atmosphere and the way everything develops just infuses you with happiness. It’s definitely something to reread on a bad day.
Overall: Strength 5 tea to a heart-warming coming of age and coming out story that is best described as a warm, giant hug in book form.
I have to admit that there have been one or two occasions in my lifetime when I’ve lost a library book.
I’ve never had a reasonable excuse (the overflowing levels of books in my home may be what has swallowed them up, but I cannot use this an acceptable defence). I’ve certainly never been able to claim that any loss was on account of a wild bear hungry for words.
To make good the loss of a missing manuscript, Brother Hugo is ordered by his Abbot to prepare a fresh copy. Having borrowed the neighbouring monastery’s version of the lost text, we follow Hugo as he carefully recreates the book that has disappeared.
All goes well until his journey to return the loaned copy, when he is stalked by a hungry bear…
A historical note at the end of the book quotes from an extant letter written by Peter the Venerable (c. 1092 – 1156, a real-life abbot who published the first Latin edition of the Koran amongst other things):
“And send to us, if it pleases you, the great volume of letters by the holy father Augustine, which contains his letters to Saint Jerome, and Saint Jerome’s to him. For it happens that the greater part of our volume was eaten by a bear.“
Beebe has used this historical fact to build a captivating and funny story. We learn a lot about how books were at one time made including where parchment comes from and how some inks were made. But this is no dry non-fiction text.
Historical figures and settings come to life in ways which make them real and relevant; “The dog ate my homework” is an excuse I’ve yet to hear in real life – a bit like seeing someone slip on an actual banana skin – but it’s an excuse we are all familiar with, and which resonates clearly with poor Hugo and his encounter with the bear. Beebe’s text is perfectly peppered with slightly archaic language, giving a lovely flavour seasoned just right for using this book with slightly older children.
Schindler’s illustration are a delight, drawing heavily on many styles and motifs used in mediaeval manuscripts. Illuminated letters start each paragraph and the finely executed, detailed ink and water colour illustrations contain much humour. As befits a book about hand-created manuscripts, Schindler’s illustrations are completely executed by hand (you can learn more on Schindler’s blog), without computer manipulation, a relatively rare thing these days in picture books.
Text and illustration are both splendid but what truly completes this book is the inclusion not only of a historical note and glossary but also a commentary from both author and illustrator on the inspiration and process of their work. This adds real depth to an already interesting and beautiful book.
Inspired by Brother Hugo we wanted to make our own illuminated manuscripts. Using some colouring-in pages printed from the web as our inspiration we drew outlines for illuminated letters using pencils before going over them with ink.
The inked letters were then filled in with watercolour and a little bit of gold guache before being leather bound.
Completely at their own instigation the girls used a Latin dictionary to find words they liked to write in their manuscripts.
Whilst making our manuscripts we listened to various 12th century music such as this, this and this.
Watching the super, award winning, family-friendly feature length animation The Secret of Kells, which as you might guess from its title is about creating an illuminated manuscript.
This year sees the 10th anniversary of another of my favourite books about books: Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing a few new book-themed book discoveries – but do let me know your favourite picture books which celebrate books and the joy of reading.
I wonder, however, if perhaps 2015 will be the Year of the Lemur…
Lemur Dreamer by Courtney Dicmas (@CourtneyDicmas) stopped me in my tracks when I first saw it; the bold beauty and energy of its cover, with a silver foil moon is genius. I immediately wanted to know where the lemur is off to, and then I noticed that actually he was in a rather perilous situation (can you see the board he’s stepping off?)…
We all know the power a good opening line to reel us into a story, but with picture books, front covers can have the same task; a single snapshot to seduce us, to pique our curiosity and get us to turn inside. And Lemur Dreamer manages to do that perfectly, drawing us into a tale of an innocent lemur whose habit of sleepwalking takes him on all sorts of adventures but also puts him in danger. He’s got some great friends, however, who keep an eye out for him and come up with an ingenious solution to the trouble he finds himself in.
Dicmas believes her superpower is “drawing crocodile eyebrows“. She certainly has a real knack for fluid, expressive and joyous animal illustrations, drawn with simple outlines and filled with washes of colour, reminding me at times of the brilliant Polly Dunbar. Dicmas also has a self-confessed addiction to the the colour blue, and this gives the book a perfect soothing tone, ideal for a giggly yet calming and reassuring bedtime read.
Harold Finds A Voice, Dicmas’ début picture book, was shortlisted in the UK for the 2014 Waterstones Book Prize and I suspect more official recognition of her work will follow swiftly. I certainly will be on the look out for future books by this talented artist.
Inspired in particular by the shiny cover and one of the interior spreads we turned our hands to creating a Dicmas inspired picture.
First the girls gave their paper a watercolour wash and once dry, they stuck tissue paper on in the shape of simple buildings. On a separate piece of baking paper (tracing paper would have worked too), they drew another row of buildings, in outline with a few windows and other details.
M and J stuck the baking paper over the watercolour-washed paper, and then cut out a moon from silver foil, a length of string for a washing line, and copied the lemur’s legs and a pigeon to stick onto the top layer of their image.
Other activities which could work well alongside reading Lemur Dreamer include:
Drawing on silver foil. The front cover of this book is so alluring with its big silver moon, and that reminded me there’s something quite magical about drawing on silver foil. You’ll need permanent markers (eg Sharpies), and could use foil baking cases instead of sheet foil paper. Here’s some lovely silver foil bunting from Along Came Cherry to give you some ideas to get started.
Playing ‘Follow the leader’. Choose a leader and then get the family/group of children to all line up behind the leader. As the leader moves around everyone behind the leader has to mimic the leader’s actions. Anyone who fails to copy the movement is “out”, continuing until just one person is left behind the leader. This person then becomes the new leader. This could merge into one of my favourite games, doing The Ministry of Silly Walks.
Making your own lemur with a fluffy, stripy tale, using black and white pompoms and a pipecleaner, just like we did here.
What book cover has recently made you stop in your tracks?
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of Lemur Dreamer by its publisher.
My post on laughing attracted two comments: an alleged counterexample from an Icelandic saga and a veritable flood of vituperation. The second writer was so disgusted that he could not even make himself finish reading the essay. In principle, abuse does not deserve attention, but I’ll offer an explanation to both of my critics, so that those interested in the subject could come away with a better understanding of the matter. Let me note that I have been studying the history of laughter and the sense of humor for decades, read countless articles and books on this subject, and published a major essay on it. I am not saying this to promote my scholarship but only to point out that I am less ignorant and adventuresome than my opponents might believe.
People have been laughing since the beginning of creation, but they did not do so because something struck them as funny, and when they did do or say something funny from our point of view they did not laugh. In an Old Icelandic poem (from the Edda), to avenge his father, the hero disguises himself as a woman. The person named Blind notices the disguise. Very clever, but, apparently, not funny, and no one laughed. Among other things, sexual laughter played a great role (it may or may not be the reason we still laugh at obscene jokes, however stupid and stale, but Risus Paschalis certainly goes back to a most ancient custom). Laughter as a life-giving force has also been recorded (think of Sarah’s laughter at being told that she has conceived). Laughter of triumph, laughter caused by someone’s stupidity (trusting an enemy, for example) or bad manners (a guest belched in company, and everybody laughed), and laughter as a sign of a woman’s courtly breeding are commonplace. Our ancestors were quick to notice incongruity and produce puns, none of which had anything to do with what we call the sense of humor.
Now the alleged counterexamples. The sagas are full of “famous last words,” usually meant to show the character’s contempt of death (laughter at a funeral is also a very ancient topos, possibly connected with laughter as a life-giving force). A man is sent to reconnoiter whether the person being attacked (Gunnar at Hlidarendi, to use an Anglicized spelling) is still in the house. In his attempt to assess the situation he is pierced with a sword. “Is Gunnar there?” The answer: “I don’t know. But his sword is”; having uttered these words, he falls dead. A warrior removes an arrow from his breast, examines it, notices some fat around the arrowhead, and comments: “The king fed us well” (and dies). Those are among the most anthologized cases known from Old Norse literature, but their number can be multiplied ad libitum. No one laughed; no one found such statements funny, and that’s the whole point. Compare the evidence from Icelandic with (among a host of others) St. Lawrence’s turn meover, I am well done, while he is being tortured on a gridiron, and Ralph Percy’s words (at least such is the tradition) addressed to Henry VI at the battle of Hadgeley Moor (1462): “I have saved the bird in my bosom.” He may have meant that his oath of loyalty and the wound will stay forever in his breast. This is all “literature,” rhetoric based on classical models. We have no idea what people really said in the throes of death. As regards the sagas, let us not forget that they were recorded by educated people versed in Latin. And many skaldic verses were indebted for their content to the tradition of heroic (eddic) poetry.
An even less appropriate counterexample concerns Tristan and Isolde (such are their German names). The two are clandestine lovers and make desperate efforts to conceal their meetings. At one stage only an ordeal can save Isolde, and she thinks of a scheme. Tristan, disguised as a pilgrim, carries her ashore; “inadvertently” he drops his load and falls on Isolde, whereupon she swears that she has never lain in anyone’s arms except those of her husband King Mark and that pilgrim. Hot iron does not burn her, and she is cleared of guilt. Here we have an example of another topos, an ambiguous oath. We are not told whether King Mark’s retainers laughed at Isolde’s pronouncement (I assume they did not), but they would, most probably, have laughed at a clown in a modern circus. The civilized Greeks laughed at the sight of crippled veterans (someone with only one arm or leg or without both: isn’t it screamingly funny?). From this point of view they were not a bit better, perhaps worse, than the crusaders of the High Middle Ages. The jokes recoded even in Boccaccio, let alone those in old popular culture (for instance, the stories of Til(l) Eulenspiegel) are either grossly obscene (sexual humor) or scatological.
To repeat the conclusion of my post: The modern sense of humor does not antedate the Renaissance. This momentous breakthrough coincided with many others. People became the masters of perspective in painting and in narrative technique, began (however slowly) to show interest in what we would call psychology, developed a new view of authorship, introduced a mass of often awkward subordinating conjunctions (and in doing so, caught up with the Romans), and so forth. By roughly the middle of the fourteenth century and certainly by the fifteen hundreds they had learned to react not only to “signs” but also to “icons,” to use semiotic terms. We laugh at verbal jokes unaccompanied by and independent of the situation in which they are produced. Moreover, we don’t need a situational background. Medieval Europeans (if we can trust their literature) never behaved so unless they heard the jokes in Latin; but this was studied, rather than spontaneous, laughter: they knew where to laugh.
There are several ways to understand the problem. First and foremost, it is necessary to study the occurrences of the word laugh and its derivatives in older texts and correlate them with the environment that produced laughter (this task has been performed especially well by French scholars). Second, modern researchers should beware of what anthropologists call the identity hypothesis, that is, the assumption that people don’t change and that our reactions are the same as they were in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The greatest danger lies in the seemingly natural belief that what is “funny” today was funny long ago. Laughter and the sense of humor met relatively late in the history of the post-antiquity Europeans. That is why I wrote that neither Sheridan’s nor Oscar Wilde’s comedies, even if adapted to the circumstances of that time, would have had any success in the Middle Ages. Finally, one is advised to show restraint in polemic. I am sorry to finish my explanations on a didactic note, but offending, disparaging, and professing disdain for an opponent is a bad idea. I hope nobody can object to legitimate self-defense even on December 31, when the whole world is expected to be full of the condensed milk of human kindness, to quote Mark Twain rather than Shakespeare. (Isn’t the joke excellent?)
To remind our readers that this is an etymological blog, I’ll answer one question about word origins. The rest will have to wait until next Wednesday, but possibly I have enough for two Wednesdays. The question was why the Shetland sheepdog is called Sheltie? What caused the metathesis (tl to lt)? Indeed, such a change looks most unusual, but I think the suggestion in the OED is the best one we can think of. There was no metathesis! In the Shetland dialect, the inhabitant of the islands is called Hjalti. It is this word (Hjalti) that seems to have yielded Sheltie (the change of initial hj- to sh- is no problem). The result is almost a pun, and it is a most efficient pun! Funny, isn’t it?
The Oxford Etymologist, full of verve (on which see a special post) but meek in spirit, wishes everybody a happy, healthy, and productive New Year and hopes to receive many questions and comments in 2015 and beyond.
Woozy is a terribly well-meaning wizard who’s keen to help his friends, but more often than not he gets somewhat mixed up and his spells don’t quite do what they’re meant to. With the help of his pet pig Woozy flies around trying to sort things out, and in the process it becomes clear that whilst it may not be magic, it is certainly something quite magical that helps put the world to rights.
Lots of humour, great rhythm and rhyme (enormous aids when practising reading because they help with scanning a line, and predicting how words should be pronounced), and clear, bright and colourful illustrations all add up to a lovely book perfect to give to your emerging reader.
To celebrate the publication of I interviewed the author of Woozy the Wizard: A Spell to Get Well, Elli Woollard, about her work. Given Elli is a poet, I challenged her to answer me in rhyme….
Zoe:Rhyming seems to be in your blood. Where did this passion come from?
Elli Woollard: The thing about me is I sing quite a lot
(I rather enjoy it; the neighbours might not),
And I guess if you’re singing for much of the time
Your mind sort of slips into thinking in rhyme.
Zoe:How does your blog, where you regularly publish poems/works in progress, help you with your writing?
Elli Woollard: My blog’s like a sketchbook for scribbles and scrawls
And all of my mind’s muddly mess.
I write them all down, and sometimes I frown,
But some make me want to go ‘YES!’
Elli on the Dr Seuss book bench that was recently on view in London.
Zoe:What would your ideal writing location/environment be like and why?
Elli Woollard: A hot cup of coffee, a warm purring cat;
There’s not much more that I need than that.
Working at home is really quite nice
(Except when the cat thinks my fingers are mice).
Zoe:What was the most magical part for you in the process of seeing Woozy the Wizard come to life as a printed book?
Elli Woollard: Writing, writing, is ever so exciting,
Especially when you’ve finished and say ‘Look!
All of my creations now come with illustrations!
Bloomin’ heck, I think I wrote a book!’
Zoe:What tips do you have for kids who love to write poetry?
Elli Woollard: Use your ears, use your eyes, use your heads, use your feet,
Stand up proud, read aloud, and just listen to that beat.
Feel the rhythm, feel the vibes of the poetry you’ve heard,
And think about the magic that’s in every single word.
Zoe:Which poets for children do you like to read?
Elli Woollard: Donaldson (Julia), Rosen (Mike),
Lear (Edward) and Milligan (Spike),
I could go on, and write a long list,
But so many good ones I know would get missed.
Zoe:Thanks Elli! I’m already looking forward to the next outing for Woozy, in spring 2015!
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen is full of near misses but ends up being one big hit. Forget the treasure that may or may not be buried under your feet, pick this book up and you’ll have a real gem in your hands.
It starts like this:
Apropos of seemingly nothing, Sam and Dave decide to dig a hole.
They’re only going to stop when they find “something spectacular”.
They don’t have much luck, but… in a brilliantly crafted piece of drama they come oh so painfully, excruciatingly close.
Many picture book creators have talked about how they see their books as mini pieces of theatre, and this book delivers a very special theatrical experience; like in a pantomime when you might call out “He’s behind you!”, only for the innocent character on stage to turn and see nothing, the reader/listener has special knowledge that poor Sam and Dave do not. With beautifully textured, muted illustrations revealing something quite different to what is known from the text, children treated to this story get a special thrill from “being in the know”, from seeing the truly spectacular buried treasure that the poor protagonists keep missing.
This empowering experience is doubled up through association with Sam and Dave’s little dog. Despite being small and just a side kick (like many children sometimes feel), the dog seems to have all the brains. He is the one who keeps sensing just how close the diamonds are. He is the one who makes the breakthrough, resulting in Sam and Dave appearing to have dug all the way through to …
…well, to what? To where? Although this book was authored by Barnett, the ending feels like classic Klassen: It’s full of ambiguity and multiple possible readings. Have Sam and Dave dug all the way through from one side of the earth to the other? Have they managed through some Möbius-strip-like convolution to dig all the way through to end up back where they started? Or have they discovered something genuinely spectacular – some new dimension where slightly different rules are at play?
Finely honed, pared-back text and seemingly quiet illustrations which actually pack a very funny punch combine to make this a winner. Do look out for Sam & Dave Dig a Hole!
Inspired by Sam and Dave’s digging we decided to do a little bit of digging ourselves. Using these guidelines from Suffolk County Council, we dug what is known by archaeologists as a “test pit” in the middle of the lawn in our back garden.
We marked out a square and I took off the top layer of turf before the girls started digging down, retrieving any “treasure” they found on the way.
They used a large garden sieve to go through the soil they removed, and a toothbrush to wash what they found.
As you can see we found quite a lot of “treasure” including something metal but unidentifiable (top left of the photo below), a section of Victorian clay pipe stem, several pieces of pottery and a surprising number of large bones! (oh, and a hippo…..)
At some point when my back was turned the game developed into something a little different – M made a “time capsule” in an old icecream tub and insisted that it got buried when the time came to fill in our hole.
So I guess this means we’ll be digging another hole at some point in the future. Given how much fun we had with this one, I won’t be complaining.
We weren’t listening to music whilst we dug our hole, but were we to choose some music to match Sam & Dave Dig a Hole we might include these in our playlist:
The Hole in the Ground sung by Bernard Cribbins – I have to admit, a favourite from my own childhood
Indoor hole digging. One of my kids’ favourite activities when they were younger, and one which saved my life several times by providing me with a good few minutes to get on with making supper or tidying up, was digging in an indoor sand tray. I had an old roasting tray filled with sand and a few spoons and yoghurt pots which I kept in the cupboard and would bring out for the girls to play with at the table. Yes sand would get spilt as they dug the sand, but all it took was a quick hoover to tidy up.
Imagine packing up your home, leaving Earth and setting out to travel across space to colonise a new planet.
The journey will take so long you’ll be put into a cryptobiotic state. But there is absolutely nothing to fear: You’re on sleek new spaceship, looked after by a team of well-programmed robots, and everything has been carefully thought through. When you finally arrive at Nova Mundi (it only takes 199 years to get there), you’ll be woken up to a delicious breakfast and the start of a whole new and wonderful life.
It sounds great, doesn’t it?
And so it is in Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre. Astra and her family are on their way to their new home but – you’ve guessed it – something goes wrong. Astra wakes from her suspended sleep, and feeling peckish goes off in search of a chocolate biscuit.
The Nom-O-Tron (a highly developed version of Star Trek’s Replicator) satisfies Astra’s request, but when she’s tempted to ask for something a little more outlandish (how many times have you seen the word “Ultimate” used to describe a dish?) something goes awry. Soon Astra is hurtling through space surrounded by cakes which have learned to evolve. Cakes which are fed up of being eaten themselves. Cakes which have developed a killer instinct.
Will Astra be able to save her family from the Ravenous Crispy Slices and Ferocious Fruit Cakes stalking the spaceship’s corridors? How much more complicated will things get when a second front opens up and her spaceship is raided by alien life forms known as Poglites, desperately searching for their holy grail, that technology which they haven’t been able to master: SPOONS.
Yes, this is a totally surreal and deliciously outrageous story of friendship, ingenuity and hundreds and thousands.
It’s fast-moving, exciting, just ever so slightly scary in that enjoyably adrenalin pumping way and above all it’s FUNNY! Add into the mix some genuinely beautiful writing (sometimes young fiction is all about the plot and the language – especially for an adult reading it aloud – can be somewhat unremarkable, but Reeve at times writes sentences which I found myself wanting to copy out), a plot which will enthral both boys and girls of a wide age range, and the subtle inclusion of some philosophically meatier issues (the consequences of greedy desire, the demonisation of that which we don’t know and can’t name) and you’ve got yourself a remarkable book.
Image: Sarah McIntyre. Please click on the image to be taken to the original blog post – well worth reading!
McIntyre’s illustrations are a crazy but perfect mix of 1950s brave new world sleekness and outrageous sponge-and-icing based fantasy. I’m delighted that Astra’s family are mixed race (this isn’t mentioned in the text at all, but how great to see some diversity just as-is, without it being an issue in the book).
The top-notch content of Cakes in Space is matched by a stunningly produced physical book. Like last year’s Reeve and McIntyre production, Oliver and the Seawigs, this is first being published as a small hardback in pleasingly chunky, strokingly hand-holdable format. Everything about the book is appealing.
After indulging in a solo read, I read this book aloud to both girls over a couple of days last week. Before we’d even finished the books my girls were off to raid the cutlery draw in the kitchen for highly prized spoons to create a collection of which any Poglite would be proud.
Carefully curated, they labelled every spoon with where it had been found in the galaxy, its rarity and its monetary value (I can see how this could develop into a Top Trumps game…)
Spoons are one thing, but cake is another, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to host our own mini Cakes in Space party. We baked a host of fairy cakes and then turned them into KILLER CAKES…
Lollies made great eyes on stalks…
… as did Maltesers and Aero balls.
We had fun making teeth out of snapped white chocolate buttons, tictacs and rice paper snipped to look like rows of sharp teeth.
We also had some Ferocious Florentines and Sinister Swiss Rolls (helped along with edible eyes).
Other characters from the book were also present: The Nameless Horror was a big bowl of wobbly jelly dyed black with food colouring and with licorice shoelaces reaching out across the table, and jars of purple gloop (thinned down Angel Delight, again dyed to give a good purple colour) with gummy snakes in them made perfect Poglite snacks. Alas these were guzzled before I got to take a photo!
Preparing for the party was at least as much fun as the party itself…
SLEEPING PODS! For the grown ups at the party if no-one else… You could use large cardboard boxes painted silver lined with duvets, and with the lids cut out and replaced with something see-through, with bottle tops/lids stuck on for the various buttons… you get the idea!
We’ve all heard of Death by Chocolate, but what’s the nearest you’ve come to being killed by a cake?
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Cakes in Space from the publishers.
There are lots of recipes for great picture books but Rebecca Patterson has certainly worked out one of the best set of ingredients. She takes a good dose of humour, a non-patronising, reassuring, sincere child’s-eye view of the world and adds in highly observant illustrations and a sprinkling of drama. She did it with the Roald Dahl Funny Prize winning My Big Shouting Day!, the brilliantly perceptive My Busy Being Bella Day, and has pulled it off once more with her latest book, Nightbear.
An old bear has arrived at a new home; the book opens with us following him from the factory where he was made, to his first (and unappreciative) home, to a charity shop where he is eventually bought by a young girl out shopping with her mum. The bear is thrilled to have been chosen, but how will he fit in, when he discovers that the girl already has lots of teddy bears with very important roles in her life?
A heartwarming, delightful story not just about having a great teddy bear to hug, but also about the importance of having someone listen to your stories, and the reassurance that comes from being ‘picked’, about the everyday, real worries a young child can have (from nightmares, to being ill in the night), and most of all about the enormous fun to be had with imaginative play, Nightbear is a perfect picture book.
Starting with the gorgeous, dark sparkly cover, this book is so much fun to look at as well as to listen to. Patterson draws with a delightful, fluid simplicity; lots of smooth curves abound – as if echoing the cuddliness of the bears, and the warmth of the family. Some of the tiny details in the illustrations are like poems; they ring true in an uncluttered, authentic way that makes you see them anew, for example the way the mother holds the hand of the child when they’re browsing in the charity shop, or the manner in which the father holds the hair of the child whilst she is being sick.
A book every nursery and infant school should have, a book every charity shop should use to make a brilliant, eye catching window display, a book every family with young children will enjoy, Nightbear is an ideal book to cuddle up with.
Feeling sad at the thought of all those unloved teddy bears leading lonely lives on charity shop shelves we armed ourselves with 50ps and went off with a mission to each rescue and bring one home.
This one (above) looked pretty comfy.
This one looked rather resigned to its fate.
These two had fallen over and were asleep when we saw them.
This one was too expensive.
But eventually we each found a teddy that we loved, came home, and celebrated by dressing them up (as happens in Nightbear). I’m rather jealous of the bustle and headgear newly named ‘Treacle’ got to wear:
Little ‘Buttercup’ got a pretty nifty hat:
But ‘Candy’ stole the show with her badges and slides…
Other fun activities to get up to alongside reading Nightbear include:
Making a patchwork blanket. Even the youngest kids can have fun making a paper collage out of coloured squares, whilst older kids could paint fabric in blocks of colour (thinned down acrylic paint is great for this if you don’t want to get dedicated fabric paint).
Having a Teddy Bears’ Picnic! A blanket, some bears, some biscuits… oh and a good book or two and you’re all set!
Ready Baggy Brown by Mick Inkpen for another great view of a teddy bear factory line
The phenomenal, ongoing success of Horrid Henry and the recent rebranding of Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl in the School series (with new illustrations by Kate Hindley) show how many young children love to read about kids getting up to no good. Picture books which revel in really bad behaviour are less common but Children are Naughty by Vincent Cuvellier and Aurelie Guillerey and The Cake by Dorothee de Monfreid (@DdeMonfreid) are two new books which are exceptions to the rule. In these books there is no moral finger-wagging telling readers the behaviour is inappropriate or unacceptable; the naughtiness is not redeemed by charming features elsewhere (such as in Pippi Longstocking, for example) but rather they are celebrations of all that is entertaining about unadulterated misbehaving.
Children are Naughty covers just about every bit of bad behaviour you might find kids getting up to, from pulling hair, to not sharing toys, throwing tantrums and refusing to do what is asked of them. There’s a funny nod to an adage all too often wheeled out in parenting: “Do as I say, not as I do” (or in this case did) – acknowledging that adults too were once kids, and of course as kids we were always angelic and never ever broke any rules (ahem). The illustrations have a 1960s feel about them (as does the text at times with some casual sexism I didn’t feel comfortable with) and are beautifully produced to look like vintage prints (a technique the publisher, Flying Eye is very good at, as can also be seen in their reproductions of Dahlov Ipcar books).
In The Cake a bunch of hungry friends agree baking a cake would be a good solution to their predicament. But they can’t agree on what sort of cake to bake and [spoiler alert] their disagreements end up in an enormous food fight. The tone and visual style of The Cake will appeal to fans of Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake (from the same publisher, Gecko Press); full bleed pages of bold, saturated colour, and characters drawn with thick black lines and a certain wobbly naivety.
Both have provoked me to reflect on my own values and where the boundaries lie (if there are indeed any boundaries) when it comes to what content I as an adult (as a book buyer, as a librarian, as a parent) am happy with. It’s not often I’m made uncomfortable by a picture book! I wonder if it is just coincidence that both books are translations from French (Linda Burgess translated The Cake, but sadly no translator is acknowledged in Children are Naughty). Is unrepentant naughtiness one of those themes like sex and death which are more common in continental European picture books than English/US picture books?
I don’t think these are books for everyone. Some will love the cheekiness, the rebelliousness of these books. Others will feel they go a step too far. One of my girls loved both books, whilst the other was actually saddened by them, feeling that the behaviour was a bit mean. I’d encourage you to seek them out and see how not only you, but also your kids react to them. You might be surprised.
Connecting with our inner rebels, these books encouraged us to have a food fight of our own. Instead of pistols it was plates of squirty cream at dawn:
It has to be said we laughed a LOT doing this. There really was something exhilarating about doing something so “naughty”. I won’t be encouraging a repeat performance, but we had 20 minutes of unbridled joy. I’m pretty certain this particular playing-by-the-book will find a place in family lore in years to come.
Music to go with cake and/or a food fight includes:
Rock Melon by Gustafer Yellowgold – a food fight but with melon balls!
Cakenstein also by Gustafer Yellowgold
Chocolate Cake by Musical Playground
Other activities which go well with reading The Cake include:
Book signing event at Waterstones, Tower Shopping Centre, Bank Hey St, Blackpool on Saturday 21st June from 1 to 3pm! Come along for a chat with me and maybe buy a signed copy of my children’s humorous fantasy book, ‘Caution: Witch in Progress’. You can also meet the witch ‘Granny Grimthorpe’ and have your photograph taken with her if you like! ‘Granny’ is one of the characters from my book, and she will be offering the kids free novelties from her cauldron. It will be a fun day out. Don’t miss it!
But even though every reader who picks up this book will definitely find Max adorable and charming, Max himself definitely does not want to be called cute. He wants to be big, grown up and brave. And to prove his mettle he’s going to hunt down his nemesis… a mouse.
But therein lies a problem. Max does not know what a mouse looks like.
The kitten’s not-knowing-any-better does indeed result in displays of exuberant courage and kids every where will identify with Max’s desire to be be hailed a hero, his refusal to lose face and the simple joy and playfulness of the chase to say nothing of the everyday challenges which arise from simply having to learn how the world works and what it made up of.
This book is an example of storytelling – in both words and pictures – whittled down to the very purest. With only a word or two on many pages, plain typesetting, apparently simple, unadorned illustrations (where much of the impact comes from the page colour and large empty spaces rather than highly detailed or vast drawings). In its bareness there is a direct line to the story, the humour, the characters. There’s nowhere for this story to hide, no embellishments, no fancy details, and this clarity gives the storytelling a freshness that is bold and very exciting.
Restraint may be present in Vere’s brushstrokes (he captures moments of determination, puzzlement, fear poetically and precisely – just take a close look at Max’s eyes on each page to get a sense of what I mean), but this is vividly contrasted with an exuberant use of colour to fill the pages. From Meg and Mog to several fabulous books by Tim Hopgood and one of my most recent reviews, The Cake, there’s a great tradition in picture books of banishing white pages and using glorious swathes of intense colour to the very edge of the pages. One could do some fascinating research into background page colour and emotions at any given point in the story; here, for example, the pages are red when Max is annoyed, and blue with things are quieting down and Max is feeling soothed.
Readers and listeners to Max the Brave may hear echoes of the Gruffalo’s Child with its themes of bravery and danger as a result of not knowing what something looks like, but perhaps more satisfying will be the recognition of characters (or at least their close relatives) from other books by Vere. Is that Fingers McGraw being sneaky once again? Could that be the monster from Bedtime for Monsters making a guest appearance? And indeed, is Max related somehow to the Bungles in Too Noisy? How lovely to be able to imagine these characters having such an real, independent life that they can walk out of one book and into another.
Packed with so much laughter and sweet appeal this book will prove a hit with many, many families. It’s certainly one we’ve taken to our heart – so much so that the kids wanted to make their own Max and retell his story in their own inimitable style.
First J sewed a black kitty out of felt, with pipe cleaners for arms, legs (and one stuffed in Max’s tale so it could be posed.
M (pen name: Quenelda the Brave) then used our new Max to create montages for each page in Ed Vere’s gorgeous book. She modelled her scenes quite precisely, took a photo, and then (as a veteran of adding moustaches and more to photos in the newspaper) edited her photos in a graphics editor to add her own sprinkling of magic.
Here are a couple of pages showing Ed’s original work (reproduced with permission) and the corresponding scene M created:
“This is Max. Doesn’t he look sweet!”
“Max looks so sweet that sometimes people dress him up in ribbons.”
“Max does not like being dressed up in ribbons.
Because Max is a fearless kitten.
Max is a brave kitten.
Miax is a kitten who chases mice.”
Here are a couple more spreads created by M (with guest appearances by Elmer as the elephant in Vere’s book, and a Wild Thing who is mistaken for a mouse.)
M had enormous fun (and showed a lot of dedication!) with this – she’s recreated the entire book out of her love for Max. I wonder what Max will get you and your kids doing…
Here’s some of the music we listened to whilst making Max and our fan-fiction:
Kitty Fight Song by Joe McDermott. WARNING: this video contains lots of very cute kittens….
Monsters, Inc. by Randy Newman
Another theme tune – this time to the 1958 film Mighty Mouse
Other activities which would go well alongside reading Max the Brave include:
Dressing each other up in ribbons and super hero capes. Make Mum look silly by tying bows all over here! Make the kids look invincible by making capes for them (here’s a selection of tutorials)
Reading Max the Brave to a cat. Several ‘Kids Read to Animal’ programmes now exist around the word; these reading programmes are believed to help kids learn to read presumably by making the whole experience enjoyable and building the kids’ confidence. Here’s a newspaper article from earlier this year if you want to find out more.
Mr Tibbles – a shy reporter on the local newspaper – has been threatened with the sack. It’s perhaps no surprise: Mr Tibbles is mad about cats, and all his stories end up revolving around felines one way or another. What his editor wants, however, is news!
An act of kindness brings Mr Tibbles into contact with Minoe, a rather strange young woman who appears to be able to talk to cats. Through the town’s network of feline pets and strays Minoe starts starts to deliver interesting titbits of exclusive news to Mr Tibbles; cats across the city overhear all sorts of conversations often revealing juicy gossip and insider information, and when Minoe learns of these pieces of news from kitty comrades, she passes them on to her friend the reporter.
Mr Tibble’s job is looking up until he uncovers information which could lead to the downfall of a local powerful businessman. Will the reporter be brave enough to expose the evil goings on? Will he be believed, when his only witnesses are pussy cats?
A funny and yet quietly profound tale of courage, friendship and what it really means to be human, The Cat Who Came in off the Roof, by Annie M. G. Schmidt, translated by David Colmer is a gem of a story. Ideal for fans of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, or cross-species tales of identity such as Stellaluna or Croc and Bird, this book would make an especially good class read-aloud, with lots of opportunities to discuss what life looks like from different perspectives, helping readers and listeners walk in another’s shoes, as well as perhaps learning a thing or to about overcoming shyness, and how to stand up for what you believe in.
From the mangy, feisty stray cat who you end up rooting for, to the hilarious school cat with a penchant for history lessons and a slight;y different (some might say out-dated) understanding of the term ‘news’, Schmidt has populated her story with a super array of characters. The narrative beautifully unfolds with unseen and fine tuning, climaxing with an exciting and rich ending which is deeply satisfying even though not everything is tied up neatly and not all strands end happily. Despite plenty of kittens and purring, this book never patronises its readership.
Knowing the original Dutch language version as we do as a family, I can also comment on the gorgeous translation. Colmer has wittily and cleverly translated linguistic and cultural jokes. His phrase ‘miaow-wow’ for when the cats meet up for a big parley is genius and has now entered our family parlance. If I nitpick I might personally have chosen -thorpe rather than -thorn for the Dutch -doorn, when translating the town’s name but I feel mean mentioning this as Colmer’s voice is pitch-perfect; at no point will you notice the text as a translation for it reads authentically and smoothly.
This must-read book will make you laugh out loud (whether you are a dog person or a cat fan). It will make you feel like for a brief moment you’ve witnessed and understood the best of humanity. It may also make you rather nervous next time you find a cat sitting ever so quietly next to you whilst you are having a private conversation!
I do so hope Pushkin Press are now thinking about translating Schmidt’s earlier work, Ibbeltje, which shares many characteristics with The Cat Who Came in off the Roof and has the added advantage of brilliant illustrations by another glittering star in the Dutch children’s literature firmament: Fiep Westendorp.
For reasons which will become clear upon reading this charming and magical book Minoe not only can speak the language of cats, she is also known to climb trees when dogs approach. It took about a nanosecond for M to decide she wanted to play-by-this-particular-book by climbing as many different trees as she could one afternoon at the weekend. So, armed with a local map (printed from http://www.openstreetmap.org/) we set off to map all the local trees good for climbing in.
Each tree we climbed we identified (it seems that around us oaks, ash and willow are the best climbing trees).
And briefly…. thank you with all my heart to all of you who commented on my last post, or got in touch via email, phone, snail mail and more. Life goes on and plots are being hatched and plans being laid. As and when I can reveal more I’ll be sure to let you know the latest.
There was one of those flurries in the Children’s Book world recently – this time, over the award of the Carnegie, the UK’s most prestigious children’s book award, to the hard-hitting The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. I’m not planning to write much about the controversy (I’ve included some links below) which I’d sum up by saying that some people feel that the Carnegie is forgetting its roots as a children’s book prize by so frequently rewarding the bleaker, and older, end of Young Adult fiction. But the debates that followed did make me think about what exactly we mean when we talk about realism in children’s books.
Because the number one point made by Brooks’ supporters, as it usually is when people complain about bleak children’s books, was the “real life is tough” argument.
“[Children] want to be immersed in all aspects of life, not just the easy stuff. They’re not babies, they don’t need to be told not to worry, that everything will be all right in the end, because they’re perfectly aware that in real life things aren’t always all right in the end.” Kevin Brooks
“the real world is so complex that unambiguously happy endings hardly exist” – author Robert Muchamore
“Children and teenagers live in the real world; a world where militia can kidnap an entire school full of girls, and where bullying has reached endemic proportions on social media” Carnegie Chair of Judges, Helen Thompson
We certainly do live in a grim world. Reading the newspaper can be more heart-breaking than any children’s book. But I’d question whether this explains the preponderance of bleak fiction (and am I being cynical to feel, that if teenagers were truly deeply interested in the worlds’ troubles, there might be more translated foreign fiction available for UK children, instead of, as is actually the case, virtually none?)
For most British children, for all the challenges they face, being imprisoned by a psychopath probably isn’t one of them. (Amazingly the 2014 short list featured two books on the “imprisoned by psychopath” theme – the other by Anne Fine.) Terrorist attack, extreme violence, heroin addiction...these are also very small (though terrifying) risks to most under eighteens, living in a Western world where (though it’s sometimes hard to remember) violence is actually in long-term decline.
Or take childhood cancer. John Green’s The Fault In My Stars is just one the latest of many books where children or teenagers die of terminal cancer. By contrast, I CAN’T THINK OF A SINGLE BOOK WHERE THE CHILD HAS CANCER AND GETS BETTER. And yet, the reality is that about 75% of children do get better. Wouldn't it be great – not least for those children with the disease – if some of the award-winning fiction out there also reflected that reality?
In short, you don’t need to think that children’s books should be all fluffy bunny rabbits and happy ever after to wonder if some so-called “realistic” children’s fiction is...well, actually not that realistic.
Myself, I’ve always thought of “realism” not in association with YA grit but with certain twentieth century American authors: from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, through Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, to Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or Katherine Patterson’s Gilly Hopkins the Great.
Perhaps the supreme example would be Beverley Cleary’s Ramona books. Following the adventures of Ramona Quimby and her family and friends over a number of years, and set in Portland Oregon, these books are breathtaking in their ability to distil the ordinary and humdrum into entertaining fiction. Beverley Cleary never relies on dramatic events. (She even avoids dramatic titles, with such understated gems as “Ramona and her Mother” and “Ramona Quimby , age 8”.) There are problems for sure – Ramona’s dad loses his job, for example – but as we see things always through Ramona’s eyes, this is on a par with such problems as her class teacher not liking her very much. There is humour (the teacher told me to sit there “for the present” – but I didn’t get any present, Ramona complains). But it’s a gentle, observational humour. There is death (Picky Picky the cat) but no truck with sentimentality (Ramona and Beezus set to work to bury Picky Picky before their parents find out). There are fears to be overcome – confronting a mean dog – and temptations – how can Ramona resist pulling the blonde curls of Susan who sits in front of her in class, however many times she is told off by her teacher? But it is all grounded in a child’s everyday experience.
Beverley Cleary recalled in her memoir,“I longed for funny stories about the sort of children who lived in my neighbourhood.” And she could see that the children she met while working as a librarian felt the same.
Then, as now, this kind of “realism” was often ignored by critics and award-givers. Cleary has been showered with honours and prizes – but that was after her books had proved themselves enduringly popular with young readers. And they still are. I know British children today who ADORE them – because that small town, domestic American life, however distant it is in time and place, still feels absolutely real.
It’s easy to overlook the skill and imagination involved in creating something small scale. As the great mistress of domestic realism, Jane Austen, long ago said of her work, it is “ the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour". It look easy – but it isn’t.
Take out the big emotional tear-jerking scenes, the drama of life and death, good vs evil, and what do you have left? The common-place. The everyday. The mundane. And creating something entertaining and captivating out of the mundane is challenging – maybe more challenging than “the big stuff”.
Yet it’s always been an important aim of fiction. Cleary said that she always remembered her college lecturer's advice that a novel should seek to explore universal themes through the minutiae of everyday life. I also like this quote from another writer, Susan Patron, about Cleary. “She showed me that the inner life of any child, the dynamics of family and pets, can be captured as rich, comic, fascinating, poignant, and meaningful."
I’m not sure this type of “realism” has ever been as celebrated in British children’s books, although it is an important part of the appeal of writers such as Jacqueline Wilson and Anne Fine (although their prize-winning books are more “issues” led) or Hilary McKay. With the humour ratcheted up, it’s also the bedrock of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole or Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson (I confess the near-death of Georgia’s cat Angus moved me more than any gritty YA novel) and much other comic fiction. It’s even been recognised by the Carnegie in the past, in such books as the groundbreaking The Family From One End Street (one of the first children’s books to feature the everyday life of a working-class family) and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler.
There are lots of joys to be had from fiction, and realism is only one of them. I love fantasy and adventure as much as I love the fiction of the everyday. But I’ve also found that it is often the grounded, “real life” books that are the ones that, as child and adult, I have returned to again and again. There is a particular and lasting joy in reading something “real” and recognising the settings and characters.