Recommended reading from early Autumn

I managed to read a few more long ones more recently – and at least I had a bit more choice having finally posted the celebrity authors article I had been working on for ages! (find it here at: https://storybooknames.co.uk/2019/07/30/celebrity-authors-my-top-ten/ ). But on to new stuff….

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

…well, new to me, that is. Actually over 100 years old, and although the morals and habits of the characters have dated, their essential characteristics have not. I really enjoyed reading this, although I felt it came to a natural end and I would not be mad keen to read the sequels. In terms of setting and tone, it reminded me a lot of ‘What Katy Did’ (one of my favourites from childhood) and I am sorry not to have read it before. I like the cover illustration of this edition, but minus points for the exceedingly dull ‘Questions to ask the reader’ section at the back.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

I was very keen to read something by this author as I have heard of her referred to in glowing terms, but had never yet read anything of hers. This was a curious book. It was very powerful (especially once you read the afterword, which I imagine would perplex younger readers – in a good way) but quite odd stylistically. I would only recommend this for the emotionally robust, as the characters really are put through the wringer. I can feel this one lurking somewhere in my psyche, ready to burst out at a vulnerable moment. Unlike, however…

The Spy Who Loved School Dinners by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham

…which is a delightfully silly tale with an excellent balance of daft adventures, slightly off-kilter characters and enjoyable dialogue. Pamela Butchart really seems to capture the way children think and speak (at least, how I experience them thinking and speaking). The black and white illustrations support the story well and the chapter headings are carefully chosen to help sign post what is going on for less experienced readers. I first encountered her when reading “Too Wee Or Not To Wee”, her take on Shakespeare, which I loved, so I came to this with high expectations which were not disappointed. Definitely an author to watch.

You Choose: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Jessica Gunderson, illustrated by Sabrina Miramon

This was a very strange one. I am trying to read as many different publishers of fairy tales as I can for a future post, so I gave this a go. Having grown up with ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ and many others, I am very familiar with the choose-your-own-adventure genre, but I wasn’t sure how it would work with a traditional tale. And the answer is…it doesn’t. Not really. Not in the sense of Snow White staying in the same story-telling world. However, if you go with it and allow the story to explore alternative time frames and places, it works fine as the setting for an adventure story, with some salutary lessons to be be learnt about who you can trust (so, not that different to a traditional tale). I imagine the number of children to who this would appeal is limited, but that those who like it would REALLY love it. Which is fair enough.

Best Friends’ Bakery: Sugar and Spice by Linda Chapman, illustrated by Kate Hindley

Another one for the ‘not-nearly-as-bad-as-I-feared’ pile. Hannah, the heroine of the book, is another child who is dealing with a new family in a new town, with the extra twist that Mum is opening a cake shop. This has two story-telling bonuses. The first is that there is an interesting dichotomy with her Mum’s new job – Hannah loves to bake too and is very keen to help but Linda Chapman keeps it quite realistic as to the amount she can do. Therefore the baking is both a source of conflict, and a point of connection between Hannah and her Mum. The other bonus is that the text is interspersed with recipes which I confess I haven’t tried, but did look as though they would work successfully. I thought the book achieved a good balance between tension and coziness, and I could see this formula continuing to develop through its sequels (4 in the series so far).

Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharrat AND Sue Heap

And so I turn to the master (or should that be mistress?). There are so many Jacqueline Wilson books I haven’t read, I really should prioritise those over one that I have but, you know, it was lying around, I picked it up, next thing you know I am hooked all over again. She is so good at laying out the situation for her characters, always plausible and never preachy. Basically, I don’t think you can go wrong with her (although, as she is very prolific, there are plenty of her books that I haven’t read). What I failed to appreciate before is that this edition benefits from 2 illustrators, one for Ruby and one for Garnet, and if you look carefully, you can tell that they are slightly different. You don’t need to know this to enjoy the story, but it does add an extra dimension. Also, I didn’t notice the book feeling dated, despite its lack of mobile phones and eBay, which the equivalent plot set in 2019 would need.

I was a Rat! by Philip Pullman

Speaking of master story-tellers, here is one of the best. The His Dark Materials trilogy is rightly regarded as a modern masterpiece, but he writes really well for younger readers too. If you have ever wondered what happened to all the creatures used to boost Cinderella’s credibility by staffing her pumpkin-turned-carriage, this is the book for you. In fact it is a multi-layered read – an entertaining tale of how a rat would adapt to human life on one level, and a stark warning of the cost to individuals of society’s obsession with surface appearances, rules and the rule of the mob on another. And it is all so elegantly written, you barely notice that it has an author at all.

Strange Star by Emma Carroll

I found this ultimately disappointing as I was very much looking forward to reading this highly-regarded author. ‘Strange Star’ tells of the background to the creation of Mary Shelley’s story ‘Frankenstein’ and switches setting from the Swiss mansion where the story has its genesis, to a humble English village with some curious (in both senses of the word) inhabitants. This book has massive potential in its capacity for adventure, the plucky characters, the compelling settings and the fascinating ideas which lie behind the action, but it failed to match its promise. I found both the choices of the characters and the descriptions of their actions unconvincing. It wasn’t a terrible book by any means, but I found ‘Cogheart’ far more plausible as an imagined world. I would be interested to know if reading ‘Strange Star’ inspires many children to go on to read ‘Frankenstein’ – I am sure some will.

Fierce Bad Rabbits by Clare Pollard

Well spotted! It’s not a children’s book at all, but it is about children’s books, specifically picture books. It looks at them broadly thematically (food, fairy tales, monsters) but also highlights some authors in depth. This leads to some surprising revelations; I don’t suppose anyone who has read ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ would be amazed to discover Maurice Sendak had a hard time as a youngster, but who would have thought Martin Waddell (Owl Babies, Farmer Duck) had experienced such trauma? Fierce Bad Rabbits (the title comes from Beatrice Potter) covers the history of children’s books generally, focuses on authors past and current in more depth, and also deals with her own childhood relationship with books, and her own relationship with parenthood. It would still have been an enjoyable book without the personal element, but her responses give it an extra depth. I zoomed through it in two days flat, and I am now re-reading it. Highly recommended!

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