Sunday, 28 October 2012

Possibly the most disturbing book ever.

So as I was flicking through 1001 Children's Books to Read Before You Grow Up I noticed a Raymond Briggs I hadn't read before.  Since I love Raymond Briggs, I gave the review a *very* cursory look, and ordered it from Amazon.

Oh my good Lord.  I don't know whether my parents were aware of this book, and just did their upmost to make sure that it NEVER fell into my hands, or if they just hadn't heard of it, but I am SO glad I didn't read When the Wind Blows as a child.  I had an extremely nervous disposition at the best of times; I think this would have tipped me over the edge into severe mental fragility.

Where the Wind Blows is basically Ethel and Ernest, but instead of the slightly melancholy "we'll never have grandchildren" angst that runs through that, there's a massive great big nuclear explosion and the protaganists both die a hideous painful death from radiation sickness after having smelt all of their neighbours and assorted farm animals roasted by the blast.

It's like The Snowman with nuclear armageddon. That's why it's so disturbing, I think.  It's a pair of cosy slippers with razor blades hidden in the toes.  It's reading The Darling Buds of May except instead of sitting down to a lovely three-bird roast with seven types of potatoes, a good few cocktails and a bit of how's your father, they hack each other to death with machetes.  In summary it serves up a very hard-core message, partly because by producing such charming work before, Briggs has the power to shock us to the very core.

I found it disturbing now, so can only imagine its impact when the threat of nuclear war was perhaps more real and ever-present than it is now.  Still at least it would have given me variety in my main 1980s worry which was that I would drop dead of AIDS at any given moment, thanks to those terrifying adverts with the gravestones on.  Never mind that I was a small child and therefore was not really at a great deal of risk of dying of AIDS - the way the adverts made it look, one could just catch it and then the fate was inevitable, painful death.  When the Wind Blows probably would have put "an atom bomb going off and roasting Nanny and Grandad and all of us" right at the top of the To Worry About list. 

Needless to say, I have hidden this book from the kids...

Monday, 22 October 2012

Big Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans

Small Change for Stuart was shortlisted for last years' Carnegie Prize. It was an extremely strong short list with some fantastic books on it, but I loved this one very much.  It had a certain charm and innocence which made it seem like a good old-fashioned yarn of a book.  It was also wonderfully written.

I was most excited, then, to find Big Change for Stuart in the library.  I would say you definitely need to have read the first one to appreciate the second.  In my view, it's not quite as good, but was certainly worth a read.  There is some extremely difficult language in it, so is probably a good one to read aloud for kids of any age who are willing to sit and listen to books with no pictures in (it really is that innocent and charming).

Like Small Change this book is absolutely beautifully written.  I happened to pick up another book that I'd got out of the library for A to have a brief look at, and it was like looking at a grade E original writing coursework assignment from back in the day, having previously marked an A*.  Fantastic writing, brilliant plot, likeable characters.  I really hope there will be more in the series, although am not really sure where the story would go from here.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, illus Quentin Blake

One of the best nights out of my life came about because of a facebook karaoke session to "Any Dream Will Do".  The original status "I closed my eyes..." went on for quite some time, and by the end of the discussion it had been decided that we all needed to sing it together for real.  Busy calendar synchronisation, hotel and plane bookings later, it was all set.  We didn't just sing Joseph, it has to be said, but we made sure it was on the set list.

I knew, then, that I needed this book when I happened upon it in the latest catalogue from my very close friends The Book People.  Not only does it have ALL OF THE LYRICS from the songs from the show, it has wonderful Quentin Blake illustrations alongside them.

C thought it was brilliant.  I was quite glad when he went to bed, so that I could sit and look through it.  Well, I say look, but actually what happened was I sang it, in its entirety, using the sofa and various other household items as my percussion.  It was almost like being in the West End, as you can imagine.

Well worth the three pounds and ninety-nine pence of your money, whether or not you actually have children.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katharine Paterson

I bought this at a used book sale, having seen it in 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. I bought this book long after I had actually grown up, but I love it anyway, and it's a useful reading list.

Anyway, I read it this week, mainly whilst "watching" C's swimming lesson at the leisure centre.  As I paused once again to wipe the tears which were running down my face, I wondered once again, why are books for older children and teenagers often so ridiculously sad?

It's a brilliant book.  Really wonderful to be transported back in time - it's very late '70s and very American, and reminded me a lot of Judy Blume, but the story is a very good one, and the characters are brilliantly drawn.  Judy Blume meets Steinbeck.

Heartily recommended for 10+

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A bonanza week for reading

The word Bonanaza has just made me smile, in a nostalgic, '70s retro kind of way.  Telly was simpler in the 70s.  Not many channels, set times for kids TV - "The Waltons" always on for a major chunk of Sunday morning.  Happy days.

I digress. It's been a good week for reading.  I finally got round to reading David Walliams' Gangsta Granny. I think it's my favourite of his so far, which is saying something, as I hold him in very high esteem as a children's writer.  It's original, clever, funny, touching and thought-provoking.  The ending made me sob, and it delivers a strong moral message but not in a "now children, here is what you must do..." kind of way.  Fabulous for age 9+, but you might want to read it first a) because it's brilliant b) to judge whether your child might get upset.

We also received Just Imagine by Nick Sharratt this week - the follow-up to an all-time fave in this house, You Choose.  Both kids loved it, and I enjoyed sharing it with them - I think we've had a good hour so far snuggled up with this, definitely worth a look from toddlers up.

I also ordered and read the World Book Day short story by Chris Priestley - Teacher's Tales of Terror.  I was absolutely petrified when I had finished - it was very Edgar Allen Poe=esque.  Like all of the Tales of Terror series, it fits very well together, and feels completed and sewn up at the end, albeit rather terrifying.  I'll certainly be sharing it with my classes in the run up to Halloween. Secondary school age and up I would say, but again with the disclaimer of me being the World's Biggest Wuss.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A ramble about bravery

So, currently I am subsisting on a reading diet of War Horse and The Hunger Games. As literature for young people goes, it's fairly relentless in terms of engagement with the darker side of things which happen to humans.  Being blown up, shot, starved, mistreated.  Political bigwigs being prepared to let children and young people die for what the government believe in (in both books).  I mean it's great, and it's powerful, but a little bit harrowing.

We got to talking in Year 10 about the concept of bravery.  One of the class said that he wasn't sure whether the kids in The Hunger Games are brave or not because they didn't have any choice in the matter.  It's not to say that they don't show courage and bravery - but when life hands you something over which you have no choice, bravery can be quite a flimsy concept.

This resonated very strongly with me.  When Mum died and people described me as "brave", it made me quite upset.  I didn't want to be brave - it seemed like a pretty crap consolation prize for not having her.  I'd rather have been a total and complete yellow-bellied wuss and still have a Mum.  I felt as though bravery was being foisted upon me.  Sometimes "you're brave" can feel a bit like shorthand for "I'm really glad this isn't happening to me."  I think there's definitely a place for that in books - in fact that's part of what books are for, in my opinion - to try out different potential scenarios; think how it might feel, experience some of the emotions at a safe distance.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Mr Men Treasury by Roger Hargreaves

I don't even remember now where we acquired this book.  I would strongly predict that it came from The Book People sometime in the mid Noughties.  However, it has acquired the status as one of those objects that ground someone in their environment.

I am sure we all have these objects. One of mine is the bright yellow tupperware colander that used to belong to my Mum.  The sight of it just makes me feel like I am at home.  A similar sense of solid home comes from the wooden fruit bowl we have in our downstairs living room, which also used to belong to Mum and Dad.  Wherever I have lived, this fruit bowl has been.  It is unassuming and non-flashy, but always there, being itself, whatever crisis is playing out around it, holding apples of various different hues over the years.  (Golden and then red delicious when my brother and I were little, random little furry apples back when we used to get a fruit box from Riverford and, for the past few years bag after bag after bag of Gala apples, which are the pinnacle of apple taste according to my children.)

Books, obviously, also feature highly on this objects that reflect all things Home.  My copy of the omnibus edition of The Darling Buds of May has to be near my bed.  Ditto my late 80s versions of Malory Towers.  For A, her book is The Mr Men Treasury. When we lived in our old house, this book lived in a pile of books by her "bed".  I say "bed", because A was never wholly convinced by her own bed, and so her bed became a mattress on the floor at the foot of ours.  It was a very good job our bedroom in that house was so large, because, having bought it as a boutique little DINKY (double-income-no-kids-yet) pad, by the time we moved out there were four of us, with the two little ones much more keen on Mummy and Daddy's room than their own!  So, by the mattress there was a pile of a few books, of which this was the definite favourite.

When we moved house we ensured that The Mr Men book was in the box with the kettle, the nappies, and other essentials.  Again, this was also a Very Good Job, since some of the boxes remained in their packed state for a good few months after we moved.  This was pretty much the only book A wanted for about six months after moving in.  I think it was her little piece of home in a strange new enviroment.  She even moved into her own bedroom.  However, all this meant was that MrM ended up sleeping on a mattress on her floor next to her mattress for about a year, as she had been so used to sleeping Victorian Glasgow slum stylie, that being alone just didn't cut it.

We both pretty much learnt this book off by heart (it's quite a long book).  I think A could recite large amounts of it too.  Her favourite was the one where Mr Silly paints a house green.  I favoured the one where Mr Greedy starts a suitcase-shutting business.  There's something here for everyone.  Either way, one thing is guaranteed. Wherever A lays her Mr Men Treasury; that's her home,

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

"Mummy, can I tell you a story?"

I was lucky enough to be one of those mums that didn't struggle with the bonding process.  I loved both of mine utterly and completely from the very first minute they were born.  However, I was not particularly a natural with very young children, and often found the whole thing a bit tiring and repetitive.  There were some absolutely wonderful moments, and I adored having children, but I sometimes dreaded long hours to fill with nothing but discussions about pooing in the potty and what Peppa Pig was doing.

What a refreshing change it is from the not-so distant past that I now actively enjoy spending time with and conversing with my children.  A is now one of my favourite companions for a cup of tea and a cake.  She's a hoot!  C, being younger, and a boy, is still a little bit prone to monologues about Nano Micro Chargers which go on for what seems like several decades, but it's nothing compared to the constant whinging monologue of yore.  I think the nadir of early conversations with the kids was when A asked me, at the age of two "What is everyone's name?"  She went on to explain that she meant everyone in the entire world.  I remember just looking at her, unsure of really where to start.

One of my favourite things to hear now from her is "Mummy, can I tell you a story?"  Invariably, this is a story she has heard in assembly.  She tells them with a perfect teacher inflection.  In fact, her re-tellings are so perfectly crafted that I can usually tell, just from her delivery, whether or not the story was originally told by the head or the deputy.  I think she must actually be the only child since me who actively enjoys the stories in assemblies.  Perhaps she too is born to be a teacher.  Time will tell.

Today's story was about God creating the seasons.  It was very nicely crafted, and ended with the little beetles curling up under the russet coloured Autumn leaves.  There was a great deal of gusto in the telling.  I hope she knows how much I love hearing her tell these tales.