Category Archives: Children’s literature

3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids

cross-over readingOne of the biggest trends in publishing in recent years has been the emergence of ‘cross-over fiction” – novels written for teen readers which can also be enjoyed by adults. J.K Rowling set the trend with her Harry Potter series and it’s continued with the Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series, Hunger Games, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Book Thief etc etc  Here are three ‘cross-over” novels I’ve read in the last year which all can be enjoyed  by young readers but which contain plenty of material to get adults thinking…

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

First of all a confession. I hated this book the first time I read it. If it hadn’t been required reading for my children’s literature course I would never have even considered reading this. It’s in the fantasy genre which is never my cup of tea. We not only get  anthropomorphic animals – in the shape of armoured bears with human-level intelligence – but Pullman introduces some weird fictional beings called “dæmons” that are the companions of humans and accompany them everywhere. Both these elements were guaranteed to get me squirming with discomfort.  I struggled through the book and was relieved to get to the end.

But such is the nature of reading for academic purposes that reading a set text once is not enough. So I gritted my teeth and entered once more the parallel universe in which Northern Lights is set. And you know what; after a while I actually began to appreciate that what Pullman has created a book that can be enjoyed in two vastly different ways.

One one level this is a pure adventure story of good versus evil. Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl, sets off on a quest in search of her friend Roger who’s gone missing. There are plenty of narrow escapes and thrilling moments to keep younger readers entertained – this is a world that crawls with danger in the form of gobblers who snatch children and academics who use poison.  Lyra makes her way through this world with the aid of a golden compass which acts like a lie detector and one of those armoured polar bears.

For readers who want more thought-provoking content, Pullman introduces a mysterious celestial phenomena called ‘Dust.”  This, Lyra discovers, has spawned parallel universes,  is connected to death and misery, and is believed to be the physical basis of  original sin. Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children who are more ‘innocent’ and unconscious beings.  Her adopted uncle Lord Asriel believes ‘Dust” is a force for evil and wants Lyra’s help to destroy it.  This is a novel that explores big themes: the conflict between the powers of science and religion; innocence versus knowledge; the soul versus the human body. Apparently Pullman’s intention was for  Northern Lights to be  “A rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” for young adults, hence the ideas of Dust and daemons are meant to be read allegorically. I have a feeling this is a book that could easily be re-read several times for that reason. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

This is another powerful novel which asks big questions, this time about racism and poverty. It’s set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression and  has a wonderful narrator in the form of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. She’s  a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper, whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. It’s through her that we experience attitudes towards the black population of the state and see the catastrophic effects when some local people take the law into their own hands.  For young readers the content around school and friendship would likely be of interest but for older readers there is a lot of darker material with lynch mobs and arson.  I thought the first few chapters were bogged down by too much exposition and the narrative voice didn’t always feel like that of a young girl. But the remainder of the novel was a compelling story about dignity in the face of injustice.

Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve

I had no idea when I started reading this book that it fell into the category of ‘steampunk’. Frankly I had no idea what that term even meant. Good old Wikipedia came to my rescue by explaining that steampunk is a  “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. ”  Glad we got that cleared up. It does describe Mortal Engines pretty well since this is an alternative history kind of novel which imagines a post-apocalyptic world of Traction Cities –  giant mobile machines that roam a land torn apart by earthquakes and volcanoes. London, the primary traction city, has to hunt down and dismantle other cities and towns to ‘feed’ itself. This is a fast-paced action novel with two teenagers as the heroes who uncover a sinister plot by the city’s Lord Mayor and get into plenty of scrapes and near misses as they try to block his plans.  My problem with science fiction/fantasy novels is usually that the imaginary world doesn’t feel realistic enough or that the narrative is stuffed full of technical info that I don’t find interesting let alone understandable. But Reeve’s imaginary world is so superbly conceived I had a whale of a time reading this book. Like Northern Lights, it can be read as an adventure story but it also has some powerful ideas about nuclear warfare, the value of learning from history.  In our current volatile world, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage these traction cities like countries always on the prowl for other nations to swallow.

 

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome [review]

 

swallows_amazonsSwallows and Amazons was the first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series of 12 novels written between 1929 and 1934. It introduces the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the Swallows), the camp they create on Wild Cat island and their adventures with the two intrepid Blackett sisters (the Amazons). Ransome, who was a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, was inspired to write the book after a summer spent giving sailing lessons to the children of some friends. His novel relates the outdoor adventures and play of the two sets of children who are spending the summer holidays in the Lake District. Initially ‘enemies’ the Swallows and the Amazons enjoy a few skirmishes until they agree to band together against a common foe – the Blacketts’ uncle James whom they call “Captain Flint” who angers them by thinking them responsible for the theft of his precious trunk. But of course, since this is a book intended for child readers, all must come right in the end. Mistakes are set right, apologies given, the children become firm friends with Captain Flint and all resolve to meet again the following summer.

I never read Swallows and Amazons as a child – in fact I never heard the title mentioned even among any of my friends. But it was a set text on my children’s literature course so in I plunged. I admit that, despite the fact it was voted in a 2003 BBC poll as one of the nation’s favourite reads,  I didn’t warm to this book initially. It contained far too much about the mechanics of sailing in which I have little interest. But once I’d got over that barrier I began to appreciate this tale of a bunch of children who get to go off on adventures without too much interference from adults.

It’s a novel in the long tradition of ‘island stories’ but instead of travelling to far off places and encountering pirates as the kids do in Treasure Island for example, the children here base their adventures on a small island in  one of the Lake District’s lakes (some local experts claim it’s Lake Windermere, others that it’s Coniston Water.) Influenced by their reading of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island the Walker children and the Blackett girls let their imaginations roam free.  Adults are transformed into ‘natives’, the map of the lake is re-drawn with their own names assigned to its inlets and bays,  the fish they catch become ‘sharks’ and the pebbles for which they dive are ‘pearls’. They eat some odd sounding meals – it took me a while to work out that the ingredient they call pemmican is something like SPAM – but they are not so far away from civilisation that they miss out on cakes and other treats from their mother and the nearby farm.

The more I read of their invented world, the more I recalled some of the adventures I had with my large group of cousins during our own school holidays, leaving the house just after breakfast and sometimes not returning until it was time for tea. In between we roamed the hillsides building dens to ward off imaginary invaders sustained with some wild berries we managed to forage. For the children of Swallows and Amazons their adventures provide a form of education. They learn practical skills like how to handle the dinghy or how to cook on a camp fire but they also learn a lesson in life – the importance of not taking things at face value and of valuing other people’s property. It has a clear didactic element but it’s handled fairly lightly (certainly in comparison to Little Women!).

On the whole, though I wouldn’t want to read any more in the series, this was a fun read and I found I could easily skip the details about sailing. I loved the way it sparked memories of my own childhood – I wonder whether kids today still make up their own imaginary worlds or has this become a victim of the easy availability of virtual reality and gaming?

Footnotes

The Book: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was published in 1930. So popular has it proved over the year that multiple TV and film adaptations have been issued, including one by Harbour Pictures and BBC Films in 2016. (it attracted criticism because out of some odd idea of sensitivity, one character’s name was changed from Titty to Tilly).

 

The Author: Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds but spent large parts of his childhood in the Lake District, using that detailed knowledge to inform his novels. Ransome had already written 20 novels but it wasn’t until third of the Swallows and Amazons series was published did he achieve commercial and critical success.  After the success of his first Swallows and Amazons novel he gave up his journalist career and devoted himselfto to writing adventure stories for children.  The  Arthur Ransome Trust set up to honour his work, continues to operate today, providing children with some of the same experiences as the children in his novels.

Why I read this book: Quite simply I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been a set text for my children’s literature course.

Snapshot December 2016

I can’t believe I let December 1, 2016 come and go without marking it with a snapshot of  what I’m reading, thinking about reading, buying. It got to almost half way through the month before I even realised I had forgotten. So let me do a quick re-wind…..

Reading

After the dreary experience of  Little Women I needed a complete change of pace and subject.  Waking Lions by  the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was certainly far removed from the domestic world of Alcott – this is a novel set in Israel in which a doctor accidentally kills a man in a hit and run accident – and is then blackmailed for his actions. It had a lot of promise early on but got bogged down too much in detail.

rich-in-asiaCome December 1, my attention had turned back to the Booker prize project. I picked up The Conservationist by Nadime Gordiver about which I had heard good things. The fact that it’s set in South Africa was another plus point. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood but it didn’t do much for me – I found the untagged dialogue confusing and I’m not really sure where the book is going. So I put it to one side and picked up How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid instead. It was just the change I needed with its bold, humorous narrator who speaks directly to his main character and mocks the culture of self help books. Quite delicious.

Buying

As you’d expect at this time of the year, I’ve been very active with the book purchases. I try to get everyone in the family a book of some description – this year my mum is getting Our Souls at Night By Kent Haruf and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin; my husband is going to be opening a veritable mini library which includes Keeping On Keeping On, the latest collection of memoirs  by Alan Bennett. This is certain to be a hit because it’s a follow on from Writing Home and Untold Stories, both of which had him laughing out loud at times. My dad is getting the Little Hummingbird Cafe cookery book – though he has hundreds of cake recipes in his repertoire having been a professional baker for 40 years he still likes to see what other people create and to have a go himself.

Of course, having to go shopping on line for other people does mean I get tempted myself. It doesn’t help that so many ‘best of’ lists come out around now. I tried to be judicious knowing that I will be unwrapping some book gifts on Dec 25 and the fact my TBR has just jumped over 200. But I still succumbed to Kindle versions of The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, Tender is the Night by F. Scott. Fitzgerald (hope I like it more than Great Gatsby) and A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (I didn’t care for his most recent novel A Place Called Winter but still think he deserves another go).

Watching

I feel rather adrift at the moment. No more episodes of The Crown which was a stupendous series on Netflix. No more riveting episodes of The Missing. No more Great British Bake Off.  I’ve been trying to like the BBC new series Rillington about the mass murderer Reginald Christie but its not a patch on the film 10 Rillington Place with Richard Attenborough. Fortunately we have Wolf Hall (the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award winning novels about Thomas Cromwell) to keep our spirits alive….

Treasure Island: a troubling adventure

treasure-islandHalf a century has passed since I first read Treasure Island by R. L Stevenson yet much of it is still fresh in my mind. I remember the menacing figure of Long John Silver and the quick witted child Jim who is initially mesmerised by Silver but proves his nemesis. I remember also some of the dramatic scenes like the one where Jim hides in the apple barrel and overhears the pirates plotting to kill their way to the treasure.

Treasure Island was a landmark in the history of children’s literature, one of the first directed specifically at boy readers. It was seen initially as a great adventure story which portrayed the qualities expected of men who formed the British Empire, governing and controlling  a waste swathe of the world. So Jim, our hero, is imbued with qualities like courage, the ability to take control (at one point he grabs the ship and steers it to safety) and integrity in the sense he knows the difference between right and wrong. It’s a coming of age novel in which Jim learns how to use those skills on the side of the establishment and against those who would destabilise it (in other words the criminal undercurrent).

And yet there are some troubling elements in the novel that undercut that presentation of the novel.

The first is troubling element is Jim’s relationship with Silver.For a large part of the novel Jim seems to admire this former seaman. When he sees him for the first time in the Bristol quayside pub he runs, he is impressed with Silver’s energy and his ability to laugh and joke with the patrons. Knowing of Silver’s past association with Black Dog and his experience with the violent buccaneers who lay siege to his mother’s in, he is surprised to find Silver “a clean and pleasant landlord” who “he would have gone bail for.” Even when he discovers Silver’s true nature he admires the man’s ability to control the pirates, establish himself as leader and the energy with which he embarks on the climb to find the treasure. But Jim is un unreliable narrator – first because he is telling the story as an adult and hence what he recalls. Additionally he often tries to justify actions which at the time feel disloyal to the men on the side of the goodies – particularly the Squire and the Doctor. She he absconds from the stockade where they are trying to fend off the pirates he makes the excuse that he is “only a boy…”

A second element that undercuts the story is the way that the people who are meant to be upstanding figures of authority are shown to be just as bad as the recognisably evil pirates. The pirates are motivated by greed – they squabble and are ready to commit murder to get their hands on the buried treasure. But are the two figures who plan the adventure and fund it, any better? Squire Trelawney  proves to be someone who can’t keep his mouth shut about the voyage and spills the beans before they have even equipped their vessel. The local doctor Dr. Livesey is wise and practical and he does at least show integrity by agreeing to treat the pirates with just as much care as his own wounded men. But both men have just as much a lust for treasure as much as the pirates (even and both end up killing people. The Squire proves to be quite a crack shot, able to ‘pick off’ a distant pirate almost casually.

By the time they leave the island they show no remorse in leaving behind the remaining pirates to die because its less troubling than taking them home to face the hangman. They share out the treasure, in a fair manner according to Jim yet Ben Gunn who was their saviour doesn’t seem to have been treated in a way that recognised how instrumental he was in saving their lives and finding them the treasure. Only the boy Jim seems to recognise the true cost of the voyage as one of “blood and sorrow…. shame and lies and cruelty..” Not quite the behaviour you’d expect from fine upstanding members of the Colonial controlling establishment?

This undercurrent of something not feeling quite comfortable about the book’s messaging is the reason I enjoyed reading it. The adventure story was good – plenty of dramatic moments and nasty villains. But I enjoyed reading between the lines and trying to work out whether Stephenson is endorsing conservatism or undermining it.

What his motives were we will never know but in Silver he gave us a character tat has endured through the ages with constant reinvention. Without Silver we may never have had Captain Hook in Peter Pan or the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Disney Theme Park. Not bad for a novel more than 100 years old..

Footnotes

The Book: Treasure Island by R.L Stevenson was published in 1883. Legend has it that it was inspired by a map Stevenson drew himself and that he drew on the histories of real pirates like Blackbeard.

My edition: Published by Oxford World Classics which has a good glossary (very useful for those nautical terms and a helpful introduction by Peter Hunt one of the leading academics in the field of children’s literature).

Why I read this: its one of the set texts on my children’s literature course.

 

 

 

Snapshot November 2016

Another chapter in my reading year in which I try to capture a picture of what I’m reading, thinking about reading, buying on Nov 1, 2016.

Reading

Most of my reading at the moment is for the course on children’s literature that I foolishly decided to embark upon. It’s a level 3 (equivalent to third year university) delivered via the Open University. It’s my final module on a BA Honours Lit course I started about 12 years ago I think, persuaded by a friend who heard I had an idea for a non fiction book and recommended I sharpened up the academic research skills first. I tossed about the idea of history but got swayed by my other love of literature. It was meant for me to be ‘fun’ – I already have a lit degree so why would I need another one???  But now the end is in sight.

I finished Treasure Island by R. L Stevenson last week and now am ploughing through Little Women by L.M.Alcott and absolutely hating it. I know it’s considered a classic but it’s so full of saccharine I feel an urgent need to visit the dentist every time I read a chapter. And it’s so long! Little Women (which in America is marketed as part 1 with part 2 called Good Wives) comes in at 470 of densely typed pages. Give me strength while I grit my teeth.

wakinglionsBy way of an antidote I am also crawling my way through Waking Lions by the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. It’s not the fault of the book – just my lack of time.  It’s quite an intriguing story which looks at how the decisions we make on the spur of the moment can have long term repercussions. In this case, the decision is made by a surgeon who accidentally runs over a man on the road. Should he leave the injured man who is clearly on the path to death or should he summon help. He chooses the former. But then the victim’s widow turns up at the door intent on a very unusual form of blackmail.

Buying

lietreeRather a lot of new purchases recently. One by Sarah Crossan, a verse novel about conjoined twins which won the CILIP Carnegie Medal – an annual award for children’s fiction. Also purchased is another contender for the medal, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge which won the Costa Book of the Year 2015. It’s described as “deliciously creepy novel”. Both of these were bought all in the interests of research you understand for my children’s literature course (what do you mean you don’t believe me!). I succumbed to an offer at the bookshop and bought The Vegetarian by Han Kang, The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh and The Glorious Heresies by Lisa Mcinnerney which won the  Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016.

Watching

The BBC did a short series with Andrew Marr looking at three different genres of books: detective fiction; fantasy epics and spy stories. I’m part way through the one on detective fiction where he argues that these follow a set of “rules”. See more about this series at the Open University web page

Listening

After my recent disappointment (described here) with my first experience of Marjorie Allingham’s detective fiction, Karen at kaggsysrambling recommended another of her titles – The Tiger in the Smoke. I’ve managed to get an audio version of this. Early days yet but the characterisation at least feels more authentic than in the other title I tried. I’m also enjoying the flavour it gives of post war Britain. Apparently J. K. Rowling has described this as her favorite crime novel

Time Harry Potter came off the banned list?

harry_potterLast week was Banned Books Week, an annual even run by the American Library Association to highlight challenges to our freedom to read. As always this event comes with a reminder of which books groups have campaigned successfully to have prohibited from school and public libraries. Children’s authors who frequently show up on the list  include J K Rowling, Phillip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson often because religious groups feel the texts are at odds with their own beliefs. The other key reason given for a ban is that the book is  deemed to contain content inappropriate for children, such as sex or drugs.

It was a surprise to me that Harry Potter was so frequently on the banned books list. I never read any of the novels when they were published (why as an adult would I want to read a children’s book was my thinking at the time). It’s only because of my course on children’s literature that I ended up reading the first in the series Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I know there are some among the literati who were very sniffy about this series. The critic Anthony Holden  for example called the books ‘pedestrian, ungrammatical… patronising, conservative…derivative. ”

That seems rather harsh. Rowling’s narrative may not be as multi-layered as say Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials but we should give her credit for reinventing the traditional school story as a form of fantasy. The magical elements have cited by various religious groups as reasons to restrict children’s access to the series but it seems this rather misses a key point. Yes the books contain wizards and spells but the magic is not set up to be a superior force – in fact it’s logical reasoning, not spells, that enables the trio of Ron, Harry and Hermione to discover the philosopher’s stone. Nor is the magic used without fetters – from his first connection with the non-Muggle world, Harry is instructed on the proper and improper, legal and illegal, uses of magic. He is not to use magic in the Muggle world during summer vacations, for example, and while at Hogwarts he is expected to follow the rules around the appropriate and inappropriate uses of magic.

Focusing so much on the magic also seems to miss the point that this is a novel that is firmly grounded in the kind of morality and codes of behaviour that surely parents want their children to understand and follow. Read beyond the magic and you’ll find Harry gets several ‘lessons for life’ during his time at Hogwarts. This is a novel very much in the tradition of the Bildungsroman where Harry changes from an unkept, unloved, abused child to the hero of the hour who has defeated the forces of evil. Along the way he learns the importance of study, of loyalty among friends and that while it’s fun to challenge and break the rules, there are undesirable consequence. By far the most important thing Harry learns in this novel, however, is not that he is special and has magical power but that it matters how he uses this power. He has a choice to use it on the side of goodness or to follow the example of Lord Voldemort and go over to the dark side. Every challenge he encounters at Hogwarts are tests of his character and his resolve to be the good guy.  young readers can identify with Harry not just because he defeats Voldermot but because he makes the right choices. Why would that be something dangerous for children to read about – instead of seeing him as something bad and dangerous, isn’t he in fact a good role model for children?  Instead of trying to ban the spectacled kid, shouldn’t we embrace him?

 

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