Monday, 21 April 2014

Carnegie Shortlist 2014 - Rooftoppers and All the Truth That's in Me.

Even though I am not at work this year to share my thoughts about the Carnegie shortlist, I am reading the shortlist as normal, as I always enjoy it so very much. 

I only started this week, but have managed to get through two of the titles already.

The first, I must admit, I was disinclined to like after the bio on the first page states very prominently that the author was born in 1987.  I felt it was a boast, until I realised that the target audience of the novel would consider anyone born before the 1990s to be "well old" anyway.

For someone fresh out of secondary school she writes very well.  The novel, Rooftoppers is very good.  The relationship between the main protagonist and her guardian is real and touching.  The novel itself seemed somewhat derivative of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.  However, there is a quote from Pullman endorsing the book on the front cover, so he obviously sees it as a homage, rather than a cheeky nicking of ideas.

I loved the first 7/8 of the book, but the ending felt rushed, unrealistic and incompletely explored, and was rather disappointing. A good read, none the less, for ages 9+.

Over the last two days I have read All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry.  What an outstanding book.  I was heartbroken, angry, speechless, upset and joyful all in a great deal of very short chapters.  I've only read two books, but I have a feeling this one is going to be my favourite. Set in pioneer America, it conjures up an extremely compelling picture of a society beset by lies and prejudice, and it has an exciting and satisfying resolution. Wonderful, and highly recommended for older teenagers, perhaps as a moving-on point from Celia Rees' Witch Child series, or as a text to read to enhance understanding of The Crucible, that old GCSE stalwart.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Adrian Mole - helping generations of teens through their growing pains.

I was really saddened to hear of the death of Sue Townsend.  Although I know she said herself that she wouldn't "make old bones", part of me hoped that she would be proven wrong, and that she would go on for as many years as old Bert Baxter himself, smoking woodbines, buying a Communist newspaper and eating nothing but pickled beetroot.

She spoke at the Oxford Union when I was at university, and I went to see her.  She seemed like the sort of person you could have a good chat with if you ended up being stuck together waiting at a bus stop, or similar. By which I mean she seemed down-to-earth, wry, interesting.

She was certainly an exceptionally talented writer.  Not only the Adrian Mole series, but her other works were often hilariously funny, but heart-breaking, all at the same time.  Whenever I see the Queen on TV, I always feel a bit warmer towards her because of her close and trusting relationship with her neighbour Violet in The Queen and I and Queen Camilla, even though, of course, both Violet and the relationship, are completely fictional. 

I was introduced to Adrian Albert Mole when I was 8 and a half. I often have very clear memories of where I acquired books which turned out to be lifelong favourites, and this is no exception.  My Nan and Grandad lived in Wolvercote, near Oxford.  In order to buy a 3-bed semi in Wolvercote now, you have to be independently wealthy, or some kind of hedge-fund gambling crazer, but back in the 1960s when Nan and Grandad bought their house, you could buy a family home in a pleasant village within walking distance of Oxford on the income of a factory foreman and home help. The past is, indeed, another country.

Anyway, there were regular jumble sales at Wolvercote Village Hall. This place seemed huge, and miles away from Nan's house (it was neither), and there were often jumble sales.  Mum and Nan would always take us along, about which we often moaned.  I wouldn't moan now - a) because I'd dearly love to be able to spend some time, any time, with my dear old Mum and Nan again, and b) because you just don't really get jumble sales any more, do you?  Even bring-and-buy sales seem not to occur with the regularity they once did.  I'll blame ebay, I think - that fits in nicely with my prejudices.

So, it was at one of these Wolvercote Village Hall jumble sales that I acquired The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4. I thought it must be a children's book, because it had a picture of a Noddy toothbrush on the front.  I bought several books (I was allowed because they were only 5p each, and it meant that Mum and Nan could look at jumpers and cream jugs, and other really boring things that adults are interested in).  When Mum came over to pay the lady at the stall said "How old is she?  I'm not sure this book's totally suitable?"  Mum explained that I was 8, and, yes I was tall for my age, wasn't I, and that she'd long since given up trying to control what I read, and that I probably wouldn't understand any bits that I shouldn't, because I didn't know any swear words and wasn't very worldly-wise. This was all an accurate representation, so off I went, clutching my Adrian Mole.

I am glad I read it so young, as I knew that whatever teen trauma came up (and they certainly did), I never had it as badly as Adrian Mole.  There were a few copycat type series, such as Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, which were more overtly trying to help you with puberty and nowhere near as rude or funny.

There are so many expertly drawn characters in the series.  The first few are still my favourites - I found the hope that teenage Adrian still has for his future deeply touching, and did feel that the later novels were a touch dark, and not quite so life-affirming (perhaps not a surprise given what Sue Townsend was going through). 

If you've not read the series, I would strongly encourage you to do so. They paint the whole of life in its true colours.  A real gift to the world.  Thank you, Sue Townsend, for sharing your gift with your readers. And thank you Adrian Mole, for being an even bigger geek than me.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Things you don't appreciate as a teen

In my school we had several things that mattered to the average teenager.  A big field with big trees which you could sit under, chat, and look at pin-ups of Mark Owen; a music room with massive keyboards and headphones so that you could play the same note repeatedly without the teacher actually realising, and several large structures you could hide behind and be out of the view of snooping teachers.

We also had a library.  I properly hated the library.  I can't remember the librarian's name, but she was an utterly joyless woman, and, even though I was an extremely good girl, I used to delight in tormenting her.  My friend and I would find a book (the more ridiculous the better) and sit and giggle over it until we were kicked out of the library. This happened a great deal until the Sixth Form when we had to go there because that's where the computers were, and we were treated with justifiable suspicion.

It wasn't really a very good library.  We had a fantastic library in the village where I read every book and was so well behaved that I was offered a job, so it obviously wasn't libraries per se, but just the singularly dull and oppressive library at school where all the books were at least a decade out of date, and nobody was allowed to smile.

It's a shame, because a good school library is an absolutely wonderful thing.  I am lucky enough to work in a school where the library is the jewel in the crown.  The librarian is extremely well-read and knows the children extremely well, and recommends books which will both interest and stretch them.

So many school libraries were lost in a ridiculous false-economy.  Reading is so unbelievably crucial, and reading for pleasure is a habit which should be cultivated about all others. Librarians are utterly passionate about this, and work hard to ensure that reading is promoted throughout the school.

I am fairly sure I *would* have appreciated this. A wonderful booklet produced by Lin Smith, the librarian at Ecclesbourne School in Derby, which was shared by Lin to all the school librarians that she knows.  I don't know Lin personally and I haven't been in this particular school's library, but this work strikes me as a labour of love, and contains some excellent recommendations for books to engage teenagers in reading for pleasure.