Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin

Having read the entire shortlist in record quick time (for me anyway), I decided I would embark on reading every Carnegie prize winner since the prize was inaugurated (1936 as it turns out). This is not going to be a quick effort I don't think.  Most of the books are still in print (which is pretty impressive, really), but some are trickier to track down.

Lots of my favourites are represented.  The second ever winner was The Family From One End Street, which is one of my favourite books of all time (obviously A hated it, as the fates would suggest).  I would strongly encourage you to read it if you haven't already, it's short and really very good indeed. Tom's Midnight Garden, Watership Down and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe are other books I have loved.

I've read lots of the classic winners, and also most of the winners from the late 1990s and early 2000s.  I trained to teach English in 2003, and our tutor was very passionate about the need for us to keep up to date with YA literature, so that we can push our students on and make recommendations based on contemporary knowledge.  This was fine when I was a student and had no children and not a great deal else to do.  I read voraciously and with great enjoyment. 

I still find time to read YA literature; mainly because I now only work two days per week (more accurately, I am only *paid* to work two days a week).  I honestly don't know how full-time English teachers manage to keep up with YA literature now, along with their absolutely crippling workload.  And I know you'll all think - in their 13 weeks of holiday, but for teachers who are also parents, that's their time for re-introducing themselves to their own children. And catching up with the marking and planning for the term ahead. The answer is that probably most English teachers don't.  Which is sad and worrying.

Anyway, I started my quest with Whispers in the Graveyard, which won in 1994.  I don't remember this book, but I'd say it's probably aimed at younger secondary aged children and I was at the dog end of my compulsory schooling by 1994. It's very good.  It's like a Kestrel For a Knave-lite mixed with The Graveyard Book.  The main character is loveable, and there is a redemptive Miss Honey figure who the reader can't help but fall in love with.  Excellent for boosting the confidence of children with dyslexia, which is one of the themes of the novel.  It's a very short read, so good for a holiday bedtime story.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Now that I've finished reading all of the books shortlisted for the Carnegie prize (oh yes, and burned quite a lot of toast along the way, "multi-tasking"), I have decided which one I want to win (I have never actually agreed with the panel on this front, by the way, which is a bit of a blow.)

Ironically it's the one about which I said to our school librarian "I don't want to read that one. I bet it's really, really boring".  She said that she'd thought it was really rather wonderful, and, in fairness, I normally agree with her about books, but my hopes were still not high.  A feels the same, and said "I'll read that one last. It's the one Mrs D says is most appropriate for Year 7, so it'll probably be rubbish."

Oh, but it's not.  I don't know if an actual child would like it as much as I do.  It's a sequel to Five Children and It.  I do not have fond memories of this particular work.  I never actually read it, but when I was at school the cool girl who got all the boys, and looked a bit like me but prettier, and had a figure a bit like mine but with bigger boobs, and got the solo I wanted in the choir concert, she used to call me Psammead.  We're actually very good friends now, despite the fact that she looks about ten years younger than I do, and is still sickeningly good looking. She doesn't call me Psammead any more, in fairness.

It's fair to say, I wouldn't have read this if it hadn't been shortlisted.  The psychological scars are still too deep. However, I'm so glad I did.  It made me laugh, sob, REALLY care about what was going to happen and think about the past, forgiveness, guilt and regret (I hope it makes my friend feel all these things too! Joking, obviously, I am so over it, honestly.  Completely, that's why I've hardly even mentioned it in this post).

It's set during WW1, with the original five children, plus their youngest sister, who was not born during the events of the first book.  I don't want to ruin the plot, so won't say too much, but the threads of the story are drawn together in a hugely satisfactory way.  It feels nostalgic, but not cloying.  It's an incredible achievement.

I really, really hope it wins.  I cannot urge you strongly enough to read it to your child (I would say 8+, there is death, but in an honourable non-gory Harry Potter way.)  I am going to read it as our next bedtime story, in the hope that reading the ENTIRE interminable series of Origami Sodding Yoda will make C more open to something he wouldn't normally choose.  We'll see...

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

Well now, this one was the most expensive on Kindle, hence it was the last one I read.  Over eight of your English pounds no less!  And yes, I know I should have ordered it from the library and waited, but our local library is open for about an hour on the third Wednesday of the second month (this may be a slight exaggeration), and when I need to read a book, I need to read it right now. This is also the way I feel about tea.  I should be glad, I think, that I never got into smoking and that red wine brutally disagrees with me.

Anyway, what an amazing book.  It's aimed at a YA audience, but I really think everyone should read it. Yes, everyone in the entire world, and that includes you.  Assuming that at any point in your life you have felt a bit unsure of yourself, like every one of your friends is only pretending to be your friend, and actually they feel really sorry for you, and that you are actually a bit rubbish at everything you do, and that will, ultimately cause everything to go horribly wrong for you and everyone you love.  If you've never felt that way, then fab, keep on keeping on, and good luck to you and all that, but I don't really trust you, by the way, not really.

I'm so glad Patrick Ness thought of this idea, and not someone else, who has great ideas but not the technical skill to create a great novel out of it (see my review of The Killables hidden deep somewhere in this blog). I would do a link, but I'm ill in bed, and that's far too much effort, so just read the whole blog, and you'll find it.  I'm sure you have time to do that, what with not having any real friends, and everything.

I'm not going to say too much about the idea of the novel, because discovering that is part of the joy of this novel (I suggest you don't read the description, the blurb, or any of the reviews, apart from this one). It follows  18 year old Mikey, in the weeks leading up to his graduation.  I think, even for the most tethered-to-reality of us, that's a difficult phase in your life anyway, where things become a bit less obviously planned out. A personal chord was struck for me by the fact that Mikey and his big sister Mel are both old enough to leave home that summer, leaving their 10 year old sister home with her (dysfunctional) parents.  This might well be what happens to BabyM.  This is one of my personal weak spots since one of my colleagues, on seeing my obvious bump said "Wow, that's a bit age gap you'll have there!  I'm by far the youngest of my siblings.  I've always completely hated it.  It's like they had this family, and then I just came along afterwards and never really fitted in" Thanks for that. I hope it's not quite such a difficult home as theirs, but I guess the issue is we all think we're actually perfectly normal really, and that's part of the point of this novel.  Also, that not being normal is actually find and OK.  But not in an "Hey kids!  It's OK to be just who you are!" kind of way.  In a brilliant novel kind of way.

I hope this doesn't win the Carnegie, because Patrick Ness has won it loads of times before, and books like this seem to win it year after year.  But it is brilliant, and it possibly should win. And you, yes, you know who you are, should definitely read it.  And get your kids to read it too, but not the little ones because there are adult themes (ie sex). Read it first, and then decide.  I don't think you'll regret it.  (You might of course, and then secretly hate me even more than you did before.)