TrooFriend, by Kirsty Applebaum

You know it’s not going to end well. When the latest Mark IV TrooFriend leaves the factory floor, destined to join a new family, there are campaigners picketing outside and bad stories on the news. Even the sales pitch has a disquieting undertone from the very first chapter: your child ‘no longer needs to play with other children, who might bully or harm or lie or covet or steal or envy’. Like the best science-fiction ideas, this simple idea suggests a transformed world: lonely, chilly, half-dead. There’s an air of Frankenstein about the whole thing: would you be happy to have a human-shaped automaton in suspended animation in your bedroom overnight? Would you kill time with a creature twelve times as strong as a human being, one that is relaying all your activities to your parents in a recorded feed? And if your parents thought it was a good idea, would you feel unsettled? Unsafe?

Is somebody getting thrown in the river by their new best friend?

Kirsty Applebaum’s dystopia The Middler was a dark tale told with exceptional style: its village sealed off in a future war was a little cosy and a little confined, its secrets all ravelled up out of its protagonist’s sight so that we advanced with her, day by day, into the unknown. Now it was sweet, now it was strange, near the end it was thoroughly nightmarish, but that narrator’s unselfconscious voice drew it all together into one utterly convincing whole.

Applebaum’s new novel, TrooFriend, also makes subtle play with its narrative voice. Where we might expect to see events from the perspective of the TrooFriend’s recipient, Sarah, we get it instead from Ivy the android itself. Unworldly, innocent, programmed to please, she pieces Sarah’s world together for the reader: not just the wider world where androids are so ubiquitous that schools have Bring Your Tech to School Days, but the seemingly less important details of playground jealousy and disconnected parents.

‘I have connection,’ Ivy observes, every time she boots up at the start of another chapter. But it is the reader who connects the pieces and sees the picture entire, including the things Ivy fails to notice: the dangerous implications of those TrooFriend bad news stories, the subtext of her inventors’ bland statements to the press, and Ivy’s own inexplicable behaviour when she thinks she cannot be seen.

Ivy is compelled to be true, but in the course of her programming, a stranger, more dangerous truth wil be revealed.

Applebaum’s novel has real bite. Sarah, its human protagonist, is not a cherubic, eternally likeable child, and she makes some terrible mistakes in the course of the novel, which come with real consequences. But then, she’s the child of a strange age – “Get with it, Dad,” she says in an early chapter, rolling her eyes. “This is the twenty-first century. Privacy is dead” – and would far rather have a dog than an android. The sharp end of Applebaum’s novel – like Mary Shelley’s, perhaps – is directed at the parents of this brave new world, or at least, the ones who shirk their responsibility toward the beings they create.

But this is also a novel about the responsibilities that friends have to one another, which are perhaps all the more vital given the capacity for parents to muck everything up. Friendship is at the heart of so many children’s novels, perhaps because it is one of the most powerful abilities children possess: think of Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, where Sara loses everything but her friends, or The Borrowers, where a friendship destroys Arrietty’s world, but ultimately saves her too. Robots are so often substitutes for workers, but here they’re being made to stand in for something frightening and beautiful: other people.

Does it have to be a nightmare? Can something redemptive come out of it? I’m so pleased that novels of this philosophical richness are still being published for children, and that they are being written by novelists as skilful and wise as Kirsty Applebaum.

The Middler and TrooFriend are both published by Nosy Crow. While you’re isolating in your own dystopian adventure, you can purchase a copy from the publisher’s website, from good old Waterstones online, or (if you’re very lucky) your local bookseller. Just don’t buy from a robot: you don’t want the world that comes with that.

Ordinary Jack, by Helen Cresswell

There probably should have been a rule about people like Helen Cresswell. In the golden days of children’s literature, she was responsible for some of its most memorable titles: Lizzie Dripping, A Gift from Winklesea, and the Bagthorpe saga, of which Ordinary Jack is the first title. She was a strong, if mostly unacknowledged, influence on children’s television, making beloved adaptations of Five Children & It and The Demon Headmaster, and authoring The Secret World of Polly Flint and Moondial. (I’m pretty sure Moondial was a formative TV experience: the very thought of a National Trust property sends shivers down my spine to this day.)

Thankfully, there is no legal prohibition (not even a by-law) against a writer producing a string of classics like this. Without being ubiquitous (no single writer could be said to dominate these decades, thank goodness), Cresswell’s work seems to typify that era: intelligent stories with big ideas and a dreamlike atmosphere in which anything might happen. She never actually won the Carnegie award, but was a runner-up with four wonderful, distinctly different novels: the historical, culinary, family comedy The Piemakers; the sweetly melancholic time-slip fantasy (with, again, a family at its heart) Up the Pier; the poetic, elusive The Nightwatchmen; the funny and unpredictable The Bongleweed. Her own favourite was seemingly The Winter of the Birds, which is almost woozily surreal, and perhaps the least categorizable of the lot – and there are lots. She was prolific, but outside her series, no two books are quite the same.

So, she had an intuitive understanding of children’s writing – and perhaps that is the source of Ordinary Jack’s power. It’s about being ordinary, when your brothers and sisters are each the hero of their own children’s novel. Each of the Bagthorpe children has a shining destiny, a huge intellect or a will to succeed; Jack Bagthorpe dreams of somehow gaining the same immortality, but dreams are really all they are. He’s falling asleep on the family lawn at the outset of the novel, worn out from being beaten at swimming lengths by his little sister. His companion is the similarly hopeless Zero, a dog with low self-esteem who can’t even fetch a stick, named unforgivingly by Jack’s father (a novelist and BBC scriptwriter – hmm).

So of course, we’re rooting for Jack from the very start (even before we read that he calls Zero ‘Nero’ when they are alone together, ‘so as to give him a bit of dignity in the eyes of others, and as Zero hardly ever came when he was called anyway, it didn’t make much difference’). But how can a boy win, when he’s in a novel about how sickening it is to be an over-achiever? Cresswell doesn’t even make the Bagthorpe family – among whom ‘Strings to Bows were thick on the ground’ – as awful as she might have done. They’re fond of Jack, in their own way. There’s not even a moral high ground to be taken, or – Mr Bagthorpe aside – a villain to be dealt with

His Uncle Parker (whose only personal claim to fame is his propensity to drive like a maniac) has a scheme. Ostensibly, Jack will rend the veil between this reality and the next – but (as he himself realises, just in time) the aim is really something simpler: a satirical blast, a low raspberry of tricksterish subversion. In this, perhaps, the book becomes more closely aligned than ever to the spirit of children’s literature.

It’s a deliciously funny comic novel, with echoes of Edith Nesbit (I’ve always loved that Nesbit’s children get in dreadful trouble when they wish themselves to be more like the Edwardian ideal of childhood), or perhaps stylistically, Richmal Crompton: “The day seemed off to a good start, as so often the really bad days do”. There are several wonderful set pieces when an upper middle-class household tips suddenly over into chaos, hysteria and fiery explosions. The ending, though perfectly arising out of the narrative, is sublimely bonkers. You feel that a child who read Ordinary Jack would carry with them a certain immunity to self-seriousness and intimidating pretentiousness.

My only question is: where can we possibly go from here? But knowing Cresswell’s genius as a storyteller, I also have utter faith that Absolute Zero and successive instalments of the Bagthorpe saga will have plenty of surprises in store. Despite their overtone of cosy stability, Cresswell’s novels suggest that we should always expect the unexpected, and as often as not, to expect it of ourselves.

Although much of her output is now out of print (you will have to comb second-hand book merchants for Up the Pier and The Piemakers, for instance) (and you should), there are some major works by Helen Cresswell available here and now from high street bookshops. Lizzie Dripping, a wonderfully peculiar series of stories, is published by Oxford University Press; super-spooky drama Moondial is published with a beautiful new cover by Faber Children’s Classics; and – yes! – HarperCollins have begun to reissue the Bagthorpe saga, with Ordinary Jack and Absolute Zero. You can order them from Waterstones here, or ask your local independent book magician to conjure them up for you. They don’t write them quite like this any more, and they have a distinctly dry wit and idiosyncratic air; I suspect, though, that they could offer a less cartoonish further step for a Walliams fan. Certainly, anyone who has once enjoyed the tales of William Brown will recognise something of their immortal hero in the well-meant misadventures of Jack and his jumbly canine pal.

Asha and the Spirit Bird, by Jasbinder Bilan

‘You have to believe in things if you want them to happen.’ Jasbinder Bilan’s debut novel is a ceaselessly optimistic book. We begin in desperate circumstances: Asha’s father has left their village in the Himalayan foothills to work in the distant city of Zandapur, but he hasn’t written for weeks. Asha’s Ma has had to give away the tractor, the only source of income for the family. If no money arrives from Asha’s Pa in short order, they’ll have to sell the farm and start a new life in England. Something must be done; Asha can’t imagine leaving their home.

Neither will the reader. The world depicted by Bilan is technicolor-lush, crowded with sensory delight:

Glossy black-winged rosefinches, with their blushed underbellies, chatter and dive out from between the branches, chasing each other, dripping from rain from the leaves, like holy water.

It’s a rain-drenched, wind-swept landscape, with all the vivid of first person, present tense narrative from Asha. It’s also a place richly imbued with personal meaning: from Asha’s family history (and family mystery too!), to elements of Hindu legend, to something in-between – the reincarnation of Asha’s nanijee as a majestic lamagaia bird. Or is it?

Inspired by her love for the farm, by her belief in family and her faith in the spirit bird, Asha sets out on a seemingly impossible quest to reach her father and discover the truth. Will her best friend, Jeevan, believe in it too? What, if anything, will she find at the end of her epic trek? Can she survive among wolf packs, snowfall, the unscrupulous men and women of Zandapur itself?

It’s no spoiler to say that – after a great deal of drama and adventure, not to mention a beautifully evocative description of a mountain temple — everything ultimate turns out well for our heroes. There is a pervasive charm to the novel (to call it sweet would make it sound sickly, which Bilan resists), at times leaning toward naivety, but this mode doesn’t prevent the children from straying into several desperate situations. However, hope and belief always lead them toward safety before too long. Not in a Pollyannaish way either, but with furious determination (perhaps more reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables). ‘Listen to me,’ she says, in probably their darkest hour. ‘If we all act together, we can be strong – think about your ancestors, call on their spirits to help you.’

It’s no wonder at all that Bilan’s novel has won the Costa children’s category this year. Young readers are faced with an increasingly screened off, hostile culture, that is frightened of the future and riven with tensions. They need Asha’s belief in the future and the past, not to mention the vicarious pleasure of staring down tigers by firelight in a snow-bound forest; moreover, they need novels with the vibrancy and warmth of Bilan’s. This was clearly a very personal novel for her to write – and it will be exciting to see what she gives us in years to come…

Asha and the Spirit Bird is published by Chicken House Books, and you can purchase it via their website, through Waterstones, or at your local independent bookshop (use it or lose it). Jasbinder Bilan’s author website is here.

Brilligreat: Mr O’Regan’s Reading Record

The past two days this week, I’ve been taking refuge in nostalgia by posting transcripts of my Year 5 Reading Record. Is it purely nostalgia? It’s also a window onto how children respond to books, or how some children might respond, or on how one reader might respond to their own history read back to them. My continuities, tastes, false memories, excursions, sidesteps, ambitions…

It’s a bit too early in the day for me to tackle these ideas so completely, so let’s just go back to 1993-4, to Mr O’Regan’s classroom in Goodrich Road, and peer over young Nick’s shoulder…

The steps up the chimney (part 1 of the magicians house)
William Corbett
Red Fox
Wednesday 8th September
Friday 10th September
Absolutley great! It was funny, scarey and mysterious. All of it was thrown into an excellent plot. The plot is too long to explain now, but it concerns three children William, Mary and Alice, as well as Stephen Tyler, the magician. 10/10

[I do actually have this on my shelf to re-read. I’m intrigued by the author, William Corlett, and I also have his overtly gay novel Now and Then on my shelf to read (for the first time). Could I possibly have been responding to something queer about the text…? Surely that’s unlikely.]

Finn Family Moomintroll
Tove Jansoon
Puffin Books
Friday 10th September
Tuesday 14th September
Very good. I liked it, partly because of the humor, partly because of the adventure. The pictures were good too. It was about the adventures of Moomintroll, Moominmamma, Moominpapa, Snufkin, Sniff, and some snorks. 8/10

[And twenty-five years later, I have Letters to Tove on my shelf to re-read. Entirely coincidentally, another queer author.]

The door in the tree Part 2 [of the Magician’s House]
William Corbett
Red Fox
Tuesday 14th
Sunday 19th
Really good! The second one in the series but it was not as the first. Again, about three children, William, Mary and Alice. This time there were also Meg Lewis and some badgers. Good. 10/10

The tunnel behind the waterfall Part 3 [of the Magician’s House]
William Corbett
Red Fox
Monday 20th Sep
Sunday 26th
The 3rd exiting part in this amazing quartet, and every bit as good as the 1st and 2nd! In this, two people descended from Morden want to start a funfair in Golden Valley, so William, Mary and Alice have to stop them. They succeed but will Stephen Tyler keep going? Find out in… 10/10

The bridge in the clouds. Being the concluding part of The magicians house quartet.
William Corlett
Red Fox
Monday 27th September
Wednesday 6th October
Excellent!!! A great [underlined three times] book to end a great [underlined twice] series. [Spoiler space spoiler space spoiler space argh] Stephen Tyler dies. The children find true gold. Cinnabar dies. Alice befriends a rat. Morden is defeated. Excellent – great – wonderfull – terrific…. magic!!! 10/10

[To celebrate the last book, I finally spelled William’s name right. I really did like this series, didn’t I?]

Midnight is a place
Joan Aiken
Pat Marriot
Wednesday 6th October
Wednesday 20th October
Very good I liked its’ realisticness. Set in Victorian Times, its about a boy called Lucas and his french friend Anna-Marie. They live with Lucas’ guardian Sir Randolph. There is a fire and Sir Randolph is killed leaving the kids to fend for themselves. 8/10

[Sadly, this is the only Joan Aiken of my childhood. I went from here to The Whispering Mountain and just couldn’t get into it. But I’ve made up for that now – it’s never too late.]

Harriet the spy
Louise Fitzhugh
Wednesday 20th October
Saturday 23rd October
Great! I really liked it. It was funny, exciting, fast moving and full of suspense. The plot was really good. A girl called Harriet who spys on every-body and writes her finds in a secret note-book. Good and bad, nice and spiteful, it all goes down in the notebook. So imagine the riot when her class-mates find the book and read it. 10/10

[Mortified at my use of the phrase ‘imagine the riot’ – all the same, Harriet the Spy is a glorious novel; I remember reading it under the duvet with a torch when I had to know what happened next. Third queer author in two months, by the way.]

The bumper book of Ghost stories!
Pamela Oldfield
David Senior
HarperCollins publishes
Monday 1st November
Tuesday 2nd November
Absolutely great! Even this book took a short time to read (2 days) it was wonderfully well written. Stories about pictures, bonfires, shop window dummies alive and more. Very good. 8/10

[This reflects a summer of reading ghost stories – particularly The Obstinate Ghost by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd, and The Magnet Book of Strange Tales, edited by Jean Russell. Summer reading doesn’t have a place in the Reading Record, sadly. The Reading Record also fails to record that I used to sneak into the deserted school library at playtime to read Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book (which was in the Reference library and not to be borrowed) to make the back of my scalp tingle.]

The lost prince
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Friday 5th November
[A suspiciously wavy line where the ‘finishing’ date should go]
I didn’t really like this because it was quite boring. Because I didn’t enjoy it, it dragged on and by the time I got to chaper 25 it was the 7th Dec and we had to take our books back. The story concerns two boys, going about the world to give the sign that a lost prince has been found. Not very good. 5/10

[My keen, 36-year-old eyes have spotted that THE HOBBIT has been written and incompletely rubbed out underneath this entry. Not sure what happened there.]

Charles Dickens
The Book Society
John Leech
9.12.93 – 20.12.93
What words can describe this classic? It’s great, marvelous, excellent, perfect, faboulous, mega-tastic, all rolled into one. The tale of spitefull Ebenezer Scrooge who changes his ways after being visited by 3 spirits is a classic. A work of art by the brilliant Charles Dickens. 5000000000/5000000000

[A bit hyperbolic, but if you can’t go OTT about Dickens, who can you? Enjoy this high point, because hereafter my reading tastes will plummet like nobody’s business. But first…]

The Complete Borrowers! 5 books in 1.
Mary Norton
Diana Stanley / Paula Bates
5th January 1994
27th January 1994
Despite the length of the book (5 books in 1) I enjoyed it. I have seen the TV series and that was great. 19/20

[I love this then; I love it still.]

Thanks for the sardine!
Laura Beaumont
[Drawing of fish with speech bubble: “What a clever girl! She did the pictures too!” Never let it be said I was a very old-fashioned child, quite sexist and exceedingly fey.]
Red Fox [Drawing of fox with speech bubble: “I’m flattered!”]
27.1.94 [Drawing of fish with speech bubble: “that was quick”]
Despite the fact I finished it very quickly I enjoyed this book a lot and thought it was very funny. It was about Aggie and her two useless aunties. They are so useless that she takes them to ‘Aunt Augustas’ Academy for advanced auntiness’. Very funny but too short. 16/20

Only you can save mankind (if not you who else?)
Terry Pratchettt
[Drawing of book-worm with speech bubble: “I’m a bookworm. There weren’t any pictures.”]
Corgi Books [Drawing of the Queen with speech bubble: “I love Corgis”]
Brilliant. I really enjoyed reading the story about how Johnny (Rubber) Maxwell journeys into gamespace to save the alien enemies of his Computer game. Very funny and utterly brill. In 1 word, Brilligreat! 20/20

[I’m still trying to bring this word into the vernacular.]

Prester John
John Buchan [Drawing of horse with speech bubble: “Sounds exciting! Neigh!”]
No illustrations [Drawing of bookworm with speech bubble: “Oh dear!”]
A really good, well written book about a man who goes out to work on an island. Little does he know that a nightmare from the past is going too. 16/20

[No memory of this at all. Not a sausage.]

The Doctor Who quiz book
Lucy M. Boston
Peter Boston
Puffin [Drawing of Puffin]
[Erm, someone’s eye has left the ball re: author and illustrator]
I love Doctor Who so I enjoyed reading this quiz book 18/20

[I “enjoyed reading this quiz book”? When has anyone enjoyed reading a quiz book? Apart from that, it looks as if it took me a fortnight to get through it. Maybe I just didn’t want to admit to reading The Children of Green Knowe?]

Melissa Michaels
A very boring attempt at humorous sci-fi. It was about a girl in a spacecraft trying to smuggle [and that review ends there – obviously wasn’t very into it] 7/20 [and drawing of sad face]

[I don’t actually think I finished this at all.]

Journey through Oz (The wizard of Oz + The land of oz)
Lyam Frank Baum
T.W.O.Oz: William Wallace Denslow T.M.L.O.Oz: John Rea Neil
Derrydale books
Very good. I really enjoyed these modern fairytales. The first one was made into a famous film. 20/20

[A rather coy review of my favourite books of all time.]

The seeds of time
John Wyndham
There isn’t [an illustrator]. The cover was done by Mark Salwowski
Penguin Books [Drawing of Penguin, looks like mallard]
Reasantly I have become very interested in S.F. I got this book for my birthday and really liked it. Some stories were slightly over the top (one showed a travveler rowing through lava on Mars). 16/20

[‘Reasently’ I had got myself heavily into Doctor Who. I don’t know why ‘… And The Abominable Snowmen’, ‘… And The Auton Invasion’ or the avalanche of related reading doesn’t get recorded here. I took this as my cue to read lots of sci-fi, but it didn’t really work for me. And just to prove it, here’s the final entry.]

The Tripods trilogy
John Christopher

[Something melancholy about an unfinished Reading Record. My reading went seriously wonky at secondary school, but it’s all lost to the mists of time. What reading experiences, in the vein of Corlett and Fitzhugh, did I miss out on – and what have I forgotten? As a bookseller, it was always the strangest time to recommend titles for.

Perhaps we have to accept that in times of upheaval and transition, everything that we need and love is liable to fall out of our grasp – and I’m talking about our sense of self, I suppose, because reading is that invisible, intimate negotiation of selfhood and otherness that can be let go without anyone noticing for a while. But once you’ve missed it and noticed its absence, if you can remember what you once loved – even if it’s just adventuring into the unknown – you can keep moving toward that, and find it again.

Yes, that’s what I think.]

More from Miss Hunter’s Reading Record

I would love a Mass Observation Archive of these reading journals. Far from reliable, of course, but thought-provoking and (I hope) a little charming. Anyway, here’s a trip back to March 1993.

Date: 23rd Tuesday March [N.B.: FINISHED 26 MARCH]
Title: Behind the attic wall
Author: Sylvia Cassedy
Comment: EXCELLENT! [Another big exclamation mark coloured in] One of the best books I have ever read. It had all the qualitys of a good book. It was scarey, funny, even a bit sad. It was about Maggie, who is an orphan. She is sent to her two aunts, in a big house. At first she hears voices, and then she discovers a family of dolls, living hidden. Sorry my handwriting is so bad but I am excited at finishing. 10/10!

[Handwriting no worse than usual – I think I’m using a 2B rather than an HB. I like the phrase ‘living hidden’. I do remember this being very, very good… Maybe I should seek this out for a re-read.]

Date: Tuesday 20th April
Author: Jon Needle
Illustrator: ————
Title: Great days at Grange Hill
Comment: Great! Jon Needle wrote it really well. They’re showing the programmes at the moment and they’re both just as good. Its’ a book of stories, so I can’t tell an exact plot, but the same characters are: Tucker Jenkins, Benny Green, and Trisha Yates. 10/10

Date: Monday 26th
Title: The saga of Erik the Viking
Author: Terry Jones
Illustrator: Michael Foreman
Comment: Really good. I know this writer because I’ve read ‘FAIRY TALES’. It started off a bit boring, but it got better. It’s about a Viking called Erik, who sets off with his band of men to find the land where the sun goes at night. Really good. 8/10

Date: 30th Friday April
Title: Mr Shy’s Shoes
Author: Jennifer Walsh
Comment: Really good! I thought this book might be a bit young for me but then I read it WOW! It all begins when Tim wants some SPIDERMAN trainers. When the shop doesn’t have his size, he finds a shoe library run by Mr Shy. Afterwards he borrows all kinds of shoes, each one giving a different effect. Lots of funny parts, and a scarey one, where his sister Steffy puts on red shoes and gets in trouble.

Date: 5th May WEDNESDAY
Title: Swallows and Amazons
Author: Arthur Ransome
Illustrator: ^ and Nancy Blackett
Comment: Really good. Easy to get into. I seem to be reading a lot of good books lately. I hope the next one [I think I mean the next Arthur Ransome] is as good. One thing though. A-R obviously knew a lot about Ships and so he wrote in a lot of detail, half of which I didn’t understand. But good. 8/10!

Date: Wednesday 12th May
Title: Haphazard House
Author: Mary Wesley
Illustrator: ——-
Comment: Really good. I got this book out of the library, because my mum likes this writer (MARY WESLEY). It was a bit spooky. When Lisa and her family buy this hat, they back a horse and win a lot of money. They they buy a house called Haphazard House and loads of spooky things happen. 9/10

[No memory of reading this – a bit odd?]

Date: 21st May Friday
Title: The tree that sat down
Author: Beverly Nichols
Illustrator: Isobel/John Morton Sale
Comment: Really good. I like the title “The tree that sat down.” It sounds good! It’s about this girl called Judy and her grannie, who have a shop under a willow tree. Then Sam and his dad come to “the shop in the ford”, and they all have to compeit.

[I’m a bit worried that my anxiety about finishing books quickly and moving on to the next one may have set in at this age – there’s a small key in the top right of the page, marking down the chapters as I complete them. I carried this anxiety with me for a long time and still feel it sometimes, the pressure to finish one thing and read the next]

Date: Monday 24th May
Title: The Neverending story
Author: Michael Ende
Illustrator: Rodweither Quasfleig
Comment: Marvellous. Unlike its name it is not really a ‘Neverending story’. I had already seen the 2 films based on it, but this was something else! Its about aboy called Bastian, who steals the neverending story. He reads lots of adventures in it and then goes into the book and has adventures himself

Date: 7th June
Title: Biggle in the orient
Author: Captain W.E. Johns
Illustrator: Although a picture would be fun/ Of an illustrator there is none

[Nothing. I think I tried this on my Dad’s recommendation and didn’t think much of it – and perhaps I felt uncomfortable about that. Either way, after a pretty good stretch, Miss Hunter’s Reading Record ends here.]

Miss Hunter’s Reading Record

Here’s something I originally posted on my previous blog, A Pile of Leaves (currently in a state of compost). I’ve always been fond of it, and I was reminded of it by last night’s outstanding discussion event, #BoxesofDelight, run by Oxford Brookes’ evening of children’s literature (variously: what were your first books, how did they form you, how do we return to that childhood experience or – quite separately – read a children’s book as an adult).

When I was a child at Goodrich Primary School, back in the early 90s, I was encouraged to maintain a little Reading Record. A bit like Goodreads, but the size of a CD case with a blue cover. My memory of childhood reading has always been hazy: sometimes I feel I read nothing, sometimes everything, sometimes only joke books. I was quite startled to find that some solid evidence had survived in the form of these dusty, yellowed book journals. You might find them interesting or amusing; you might be amazed at my spelling and unreconstructed opinions, or perplexed by my juvenile Judy Garland fandom.

You might have reading records of your own! Please dig them out and share if so. For now, let’s go back to September 1992, in Class 15, my penultimate year at Goodrich Primary…

Date: Friday 12th September
Title: Little girl lost, The life and hard times of Judy Garland.
Author: Al DiOrio.
Comment: I have just finished it, and I think it’s brilliant. I bought it while I was on holiday and have been reading it ever since. It’s a very intresting biography of one of my faviourite singers and actresses. I really enjoyed the parts from the newspapers, the film reviews, and the photographs. It gives brilliant accounts on lots of things, starting from Frances Gumm, to Dorothy, to her four divorces to her death. Brilliant.

[This got a little tick from Miss Hunter.]

Date: Friday 12th September
Title: When the siren wailed
Auother: Noel Streatfield
Illustrator: Margery Gill
Comment: It was very good and I enjoyed it. It was about three evacuees from London, who were evacuated to Charnbury. After a while they runaway to find their mum, only to find her [in] hospital, after a bomb hit Marefield Road. The picthures were a bit naff, and in some parts I skipped paragraphs, but all in all it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Date: Friday 12th September
Title: The alchimist’s cat
Aotuher: Robin Jarvis
Illustrator: Robin Jarvis
Comment: A very good book, although I don’t think I’ll go to the trouble of reading others in the same series. Very exiting pictures, and a few deaths. It is set in 1664, and in some parts was a bit boring, but I enjoyed it. It had lots of magic in it, and the chapters were very long. But good.

Date: Monday 12th October.
Title: Lucy and the big bad wolf.
Illustrator: Karin Littlewood.
Author: Ann Jungman.
Comment: A brilliant book. Very funny. All the characters were very strong. What I mean by this, is that their characters were really definete. The bad characters were bad, the good characters good, and the wierdos were wierd.

Date: Wednesday 14th October.
Title: Lucy and the wolf in sheeps clothing.
Author: Ann Jungman.
Illustrator: Karin Littlewood.
Comment: An excellent sequel to, “Lucy and the big bad wolf.” Now with a female wolf. 2.15 (yes that’s the male wolfs name) is hunted by the police, and uses loads and loads of disguises.

Date: Tuesday 20th October.
Title: The mystery of the burnt cottage
Illustrator: Mary Geraint
Author: Enid Blyton
Comment: Really good. It had lots of twists in it. It turned out that the culprit was really the owner! [Giant exclamation mark there to emphasise the psychological dynamism of La Blyton.] I really enjoyed it.

[I have also drawn – quite badly, to be brutally frank – a little role call of the Five Find-Outers, who I much preferred to the Famous Five or Secret Seven. I distinctly remember reading this book with an ice cream on Boscombe beach, so either I reread because it was so good or I was trying to cover up some reader’s block this week.]

Date: Monday 2nd November
Title: The indian in the cupboard.
Author: Lynne reid Banks
Illustrator: -None-
Comment: Really good. I like the writer anyway, but, this was better than the first one I had read. It had two humans called Omri and Patrick. Omri had a sort of cupboard and a toy indian. He put the indian into the cupboard, and it came alive.

[I can’t believe I didn’t go into more detail about just how much I enjoyed this novel.]

Date: Friday 6th November
Title: The dark Portal
Autoher: Robin Jarvis
Illystrator: Same
Comment: This book was really exiting, but I didn’t enjoy it much. It was really [underlined] gorey. I’ve allready read a book by the same aother, it was “The alchemists cat.” I don’t [underlined twice] thingk that I will read any more, it was just TOO disgusting

Date: Friday 13th November
Title: The adventures of Huckleberry finn.
Author: Mark Twain.
Comment: A boring book. I didn’t like it. The print was small, it had 43 chapters in it, and was written in a strange way. It was kind of american. I didn’t enjoy it. Mostly, everytime I opend the book, I couldn’t find the right page, so I must have read some chapters 3 times over.

Date: 2nd December
Title: Little house on the prairie
Author: Laura Wilder
Illustrator: Garth Williams
Comment: Really good. I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t brilliant, but almost. It was really detailed. The print was big enough and there was only 26 chapters. It was about Laura Ingalls and her family when they left their home in the woods, to go and live in indian territory. Really good.

[I’m so lying. Little House in the Great Big Woods was an all-time favourite, but as for the sequel…]

Date: Wednesday 9th Dec
Title: The exiles
Author: Hilary McKay
Illustrator: There isn’t one.
Comment: Very good. It was really funny. Unfortunately I couldn’t finish it but this is the story as far as I could go. Four sisters go to spend the summer with their greedy big grandma.

[Wow, who wants any more book than that? I’m sure there’s something fishy about the use of the word ‘unfortunately’.]

Date: 5th January
Title: The phoenix and the carpet
Author: E. Nesbit
Illustrator: H.R. Millar
Comment: Fantastic! I really, really, really enjoyed it! It all starts when these 4 children accidentally ruin a carpet. When they get a new one it turns out to be a wishing carpet. Also, rolled up inside, is an egg and when it hatches, out pops a golden Phoenix! Great!

Date: Tuesday 26th January
Title: Spellhorn
Author: Berlie Doherty
Illustrator: ———
Comment: O.K., but I didn’t like it much. The plot was good, but it was too long drawn out. It was all about Laura, a blind girl. A unicorn called Spellhorn likes her, and takes her away to the wild ones who are camping near by. After awhile, you reach the Wilderness. Laura can see again, and is called Mighty high. At last she gets home.

Date: Monday 22nd February
Title: The hound of the Baskervilles
Author: A.C. Doyle
Comment: Good, but not fantastic. I had heard the story already at Nethercott [Farm, i.e. our school holiday, hosted by the actual Michael Morpurgo, and one of the most thrilling weeks of my young life]. It was much scarier than the ladybird one [i.e. the Ladybird version], because of extra detail. Because it was written for grown ups, it was hard to understand, but it was still good. 8/10

Date: Friday 26th February
Author: Paula Danziga
Comment: BRILLIANT! I’m actually surprised about this. When I got it out of the libary I thought it would be for teenagers, and very boring. But as I got into the plot, I loved it. It’s about a girl called Mary who thinks she’s a blimp. She has a new teacher who teaches language in strange ways, which the children like. Because of her teaching techniuqes, she gets fines. The most dramatic and scary part is where there is a hearing and you don’t know if Ms Finney will win. 10/10

[Here’s a good one to finish on…]

Date: 4th March
Title: The snow spider trilogy
Author: Jenny Nimmo
Illustrator: Joanna Carey
Comment: Brilliant. Very magical and a bit scarey. Also it was very long because it was 3 books in one! [Big exclamation mark to emphasise vastness of the Snow Spider trilogy.] The central character is Gwyn Griffthis. He lives in Wales and has a grandmother called Nain, who tells Gwyn hes a magician. It was BRILLIANT! [Another giant exclamation mark but still only] 8/10 [, although there are little drawings of Gwyn and his Nain so – well, I don’t know what it all means. I have absolutely no memory of reading The Chestnut Soldier as a child, but who knows…?]

The One That Got Away, by Jan Mark

When is a children’s book not a children’s book? I might be risking pretentiousness to refer to Ezra Pound and his ‘news that stays news’, but writing for children is not far off that definition: some knowledge or insight into the world is handed down to the next generation, and if it really lives that book will endure. If, however, it’s too bound up in the interests of one particular audience, it will quickly become a curio at best. The difference is sometimes hard to articulate, and whilst this blog is meant to talk about books for young readers, there is something about a truly great writer that is capable of transcending their original audience and satisfy grown-up readers as well: that’s why I’m talking about Jan Mark today.

I never read her when I was young, but for most of my childhood she was a firm part of the landscape. She won the Carnegie Medal, not once but twice (and nobody has yet won it three times), appeared in anthologies and edited them too. When I first read her, the two-story collection Hairs in the Palm of the Hand (playing by its own rules, so typically of her), my partner remembered her work with real pleasure. Who could forget young Eileen’s blithe Chutzpah in the subversive and hilarious story of that name, invading another school and running rings around the teachers and kids there? Or the boys in Time and the Hour who play in such a serious fashion with losing or saving time?

For myself, I felt I had discovered something truly, rebelliously alive despite the intervening years. Now, those tales and four volumes of her short stories have been collected in The One That Got Away, edited by Jon Appleton (who also runs this wonderful site in celebration of her). All month, expertly led by teacher and Mark fan Ben Harris, we’ve celebrated #JanMARKuary on Twitter, discussing Jon’s collection of ghost stories, stories about dares, witty stories, school stories and more. I’ve never enjoyed January more! But is Mark, with hardly any of her huge output still in print, the great writer that got away – or could she be about to enter a new era of readership?

An image from the Flemish tribute to Mark: showing her in her role of teacher

It seems rarely discussed these days, the crossover in readership. A very few books (The Wizard of Earthsea comes to mind) are published in two different editions. Very long-standing children’s classics like Alice and the Willows are probably read more by older readers than younger. I can only think of one writer whose work has been published originally for children but is now read by adults, and understood to be about children and not just for them: that’s A Long Way from Verona, by Jane Gardam. I am absolutely certain that any fan of Gardam’s would relish Mark’s work; only this week, I have also seen her compared to Henry James. There is a trace of Saki in some of her stories, too, when she is at her most sardonic and her least reassuring.

In the 1970s, children’s literature was not always reassuring. It introduced young readers to sophisticated ideas about the world: loss, change, terror, the strangeness of time, the bitterness of history, the unfairness of the world. At one point in Thunder and Lightnings, still in Puffin (like an open secret), Andrew’s Mum tells him, ‘There’s no such thing as fairness. It’s a word made up to keep children quiet. When you discover it’s a fraud then you’re starting to grow up.’ But the heroic project of the great writers of this literature is that they ally with the child in this maddening world: they are on the side of hope, of underdogs, of alternate perspectives, of delight in the world for itself and not to an end. All this might be something worth rediscovering, particularly when it’s told with such Marked skill.

Cover illustration by Thomas Walker

In many ways Thunder and Lightnings (1976), feels fixed in time (Mark said that later stories, including many of those in The One That Got Away, were set in the past so the story would have ‘had the chance to cool off’) – not just as a depiction of how cherished things are lost and of how we ‘start to grow up’, but also with glancing references to recession and the proximity of the Second World War, and an image of childhood as unmodern now as William Brown’s would have been then. It is told with such delicacy and such vibrancy, though, that it is criminal if (as I assume) it falls between two readerships. After all, the story of how we leave childhood is not just relevant to those who haven’t done so yet.

Mark is not only a writer should crossover in publishing terms, but someone who crosses over as a writer. I often think of children’s books as characterised by Michael Rosen (who, I think, should have a handle on the subject if anyone if anyone does!), as “not so much for children, but as the filling that goes between the child world and the adult world”. The news that stays news may well be about that relationship: author, audience, teacher, student. If you have ever been a child, or wondered about the strange responsibility of being grown up, you should not let Jan Mark be the writer who got away from you. Catch her while you can.

The One that Got Away is currently available exclusively from the Jan Mark is Here website. Thunder and Lightnings is published by Puffin, and you can get it from your local independent or here from Waterstones. It’s currently being discussed online via Christopher Edge’s Classic Children’s Book Club: @ClassicChBkClub The spirit of #JanMARKuary lives on!

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien

There’s something about little people in children’s literature, and it’s not hard to see why: who better for your audience to identify with than characters who are close to the ground, living in a world made to others’ measurements, seeing ordinary things close to, with all the additional beauty and terror that viewpoint offers? Mrs Frisby – who is a mouse, not to mention a single mum – is one of these, and the Rats of NIMH are the same yet different again, though Mrs Frisby doesn’t know that when she sets out to ask their help.

Animals, specifically, are a big part of the children’s literature scene. Where would we all be without Mole and Rattie, Peter, Paddington or the Cowardly Lion? But these are metaphorical characters really, human beings in a sort of costume. Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 novel – a gift to me from a friend – is much more about what it means to be an animal, to be without civilisation or society, always hustling and bustling for food and survival. It’s not Tarka the Otter, either, a novel so immersed in naturalistic behaviour that the human language often feels too restrictive for its broiling, bestial otter energy.

O’Brien gives his animals enough language to comment on their condition, their sense of difference. As one character tells Mrs Frisby whilst outlining his mad, revolutionary plan, even a rat race mentality isn’t a rat race at all: we borrow the name to describe or disguise the truth, that “[it’s] a People Race, and no sensible rats would ever do anything so foolish.”

And we know, he tells her, that there are rat-like creatures who evolved out of the primordial landscape; they just didn’t go as far as the monkeys did. What does it mean when you realise that human dominance over the rest of nature is essentially an accident of history, and actually freighted with politics? And what if something should tip the balance the other way somehow, or at least make things more complicated than they appear? Perhaps, like the stories of the perpetually emigrating Borrowers or the Mouse and his Child seeking to become self-winding, a story of little people ends up transcending metaphor and becoming a story about the big things: who we are, what we stand for, and what we could do if we tried.

The animal world is a nervous, suspicious one, but in the course of her adventure, Mrs Frisby frequently oversteps its boundaries, uncovering surprising alliances and friendships as she goes. One of the recurring lines of the novel is, “But they [the birds, the rats, the cats, the mice] have never been friends of ours…!” By the close of the novel, when the words are in the mouths of Mrs Frisby’s children, they are almost absurd. Whether or not O’Brien was fully conscious of it (given that his depiction of gender roles reads as peculiarly conservative nowadays) the subtext of the novel is profound. Meanwhile, every human character we meet is either fatuous or somewhat sinister. In the closing chapters, they can’t see the wood for the trees – nor what miraculous thing is escaping into the wood for safety.

It’s intriguing to see the liberties taken by Don Bluth’s company when they adapted the novel for the big screen (whilst acknowledging the ambition of the project). As if O’Brien’s collision of Watership Down, Island of Dr Moreau and The Wombles was not enough, Bluth gives Mrs Frisby an amulet with strange powers, with which she ultimately saves the day. This, Bluth says, “is just a way of letting the audience know that Mrs Frisby has found ‘Courage of the Heart’.” Perhaps this is a reasonable concession to show the resolve she possesses by the end of her tale, and give her a hero moment the novel never quite grants her.

Nonetheless, I think I prefer the novel’s approach: quieter, less mystical, less grandiose. A novel of small but major acts of bravery, modest but enduring triumphs, a plan in execution without any guarantee of success. A novel which divides its heroism between one person who has grown too determined to be afraid, and a community which has grown too wise to overlook the individual.

This novel is – hallelujah – still in print, published with an eyecatching cover by Puffin Books (and I’ve just noticed – you can see the rosebush, look!). Buy it from your local independent, or order up a copy from Waterstones, or buy a secondhand cover like the one above (cover art by Jill Bennett). It would make an ideal bedtime read – it starts with the sweetness of a mouse in need but decidedly grows teeth by the middle part – or an independent read for a thoughtful middle-grader.

Gloves Off, by Louisa Reid

i am no more than my size, and that size makes

me nothing and too much.

a paradox.

At the beginning of this verse novel, we meet Lily on her sixteenth birthday, picking herself off the floor after a bruising physical assault. At school, she is routinely humiliated for her size: meanwhile, her mother, Bernadette, ‘does not leave the house at all.

she taught me all about her shame

and left me alone with mine.

Both mother and daughter know she only has to get through one last year, and then she can leave the school behind. But is that the only way to be free? Isn’t there an alternative?

I’m somewhat surprised that, in less than twelve months of this blog, Gloves Off is the second novel about boxing that I’ve reviewed (the first, by Nikesh Shukla, is discussed here) and the third novel about sport. It’s the fourth, if you include my mention of Jason Reynolds’ Ghost. For a long time – right up into my late teens, if not longer – I saw myself firmly in the bookish camp (not to mention, the camp and bookish). I not only felt excluded from sporting activity, but bored by it and contemptuous of its participants. For many years, I would never have considered those two worlds becoming one, but what we’ve seen is the last year is a huge trend for sport-themed novels in children’s and YA fiction, including the Carnegie shortlist.

Moreover, I’ve enjoyed these novels. They are tales of self-determination and self-respect, but they are not bland tales of elite performance. Shukla’s novel puts the fighting spirit of his protagonist in a context of Far-Right violence and the psychology of victimisation: it’s as much about understanding the nature of confrontation as it is about physical change. Gloves Off is about feeling trapped by hatred internalised as self-loathing. I was reminded of the girls voted ugliest girls in school, in Clementine Beauvais’ joyful road-trip novel Piglettes, but Lily and her mother’s situation is past the point of escapism. In a world of men who enjoy their vulnerability, Lily must mine her strength and self-possessio out of herself.

This is a novel about ‘the business’ of becoming a young woman, as Lily sees it:

the work of growing up, of creating

yourself, the hatching and flourishing of


butterfly bright,

dragonfly gold.

It is also about love, which binds people in ways both destructive and empowering. Reid’s novel is less plotty than Shukla’s, but there is knotted complexity to the watchful, difficult, heartfelt mother-daughter relationship she depicts here, made vivid through the careful balance between their voices. Poetry, ostensibly a slow and meditative form, makes narrative as propulsive and immersive as a movie composed of headcam shots. Perhaps that’s why it has found a home in the field of Young Adult writing. You experience this novel intensely and intimately with its protagonists, and the sparing shifts between their voices make this in part an account of women studying one another for signs of hope, danger, and beauty.

I think this is why Tamsin Rosewell (bookseller extraordinaire of Kenilworth Books) recommended Gloves Off to me as a book with potential to cross audiences. Like the boxing gym, which Reid presents as a more liberating space than school, the verse of this novel is a space in which the voices of different generations and perspectives interact and combine. That is also, I think, a definition of great children’s literature – which bodes well for new publisher, Guppy Books, for whom this was a first and thrilling publication.

Gloves Off is currently available in hardback: Guppy Books publish it in paperback this March. You can order it from the publishers website and check out their upcoming titles; buy it from Waterstones via this link; or ask for it at your local independent bookshop (use ’em or lose ’em).

The Ghost Drum, by Susan Price

Reading ‘The Ghost Drum’ this week, with a pot of Smoky Russian Caravan

I try to strike a balance on here between reviewing new children’s fiction and older books. So often the debut writers get the glory while the backlist is left on the back burner, and that’s hardly sustainable. There’s certainly something wrong with a world where a novel like The Ghost Drum – which was not only critically acclaimed but Carnegie-winning, a novel that bewitches and delights and disturbs, and what’s more, stimulates curiosity within the heart to read and hear more of its kind – is allowed to go out of print.

I’ve had it on my shelf a little while, but reading Koshka’s Tales last week had whetted my appetite for tales of Czars, Czaritsas and Czareviches, not to mention houses on chicken legs (and, indeed, cat legs), and all their magical intrigues – and at this time of year, how tempting to read about a country where “all the winter is one long night, and all that night long the sky-stars glisten in their darkness, and the snow-stars glitter in their whiteness, and between the two there hangs a shivering curtain of cold twilight”.

In the opening chapter, a baby is rescued from a life of servitude by a witch who lives in a house that walks on chicken legs, but the name ‘Baba Yaga’ is not deployed by Price. Instead, the witch is more likely to called a shaman, and – as in last year’s smash hit, The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson – she is one of a wide community. There is evidently a weight of reading and research behind this novel, but it is like the driving power behind a storm coming in from the east: invisible and compelling, it sweeps us up in a cloud of telling detail.

An image by Ivan Bilibin from The Tsar of Saltan (1905), which Price has cited as an influence (see link at bottom of blog)

I suppose we should be wary of novels that seem so effortlessly to evoke another culture – but then, that’s part of this novel’s effect, in playing so overtly with motifs of Eastern European fairy tale, to make us conscious that the motifs are those of successive tellers, each telling (even the first) being the product of a particular culture. It’s an intelligent novel as well as entertaining, and a couple of times, passing comment on events, the storyteller bares a set of sharp teeth. (It is, after all, the same black cat chained to an oak tree that we heard from last week.)

I must say, Jackanory missed a trick in not televising this story back in 1987. I think Helen Mirren would have had a blast telling this one: its icily despotic villains, moral and ingenious heroes, the totally convincing people caught in-between, and the stirring theme of human capacity to transcend oppression.  Perhaps it’s not too late for Radio 4 to produce a version (has there even been a novel for children on Book at Bedtime)? And indeed, it might be more suitable reading after the watershed as it proceeds – the deceptive lightness of the storytelling does not preclude some bloody violence and ghostly moments.

I’m very excited to have happened across a sequel at the start of this month. There’s nothing unsatisfying about a short novel when it has the richness of The Ghost Drum, but it’s like the song the witch sings to her apprentice here, which gives the girl all she needs in one year to grow to a young woman of twenty. Afterwards, it’s necessary for her to feast on black bread, herrings, long-stored oranges and more, the table so crammed tat the cups are balanced over the edge. Any reader of The Ghost Drum will finish with the same ravenous appetite for more of the kind.

A new edition, now available – with three sequels!

I began this blog by saying that The Ghost Drum and its sequels were not currently available – but in preparation for this blog piece, I discovered that is not quite true. The books are currently being self-published, both as paperbacks and e-books, so you have no excuse not to read them. On the other hand, come on Faber, get your act together! Meanwhile, Susan Price’s author website looks like a real treasure trove. Let’s both discover it this week: