Who am I?

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Mmm books - they taste good in my brain. So I decided to work in publishing and feed my habit. So now for a living I read wonderful children's books and tell everyone how great they are. It's called publicity! Many thanks to Oliver Jeffers for the name inspiration and header image.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Carnegie Challenge: The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett

In the beginning there were storytellers. Ok, well in the actual beginning there were grunts, then words, then basic grasp of language, then eventually storytellers.... Myths, fables, legends, all these ways of telling a tale that preceded books and novels. Every now and again you come across a book that really is a story in a very pure sense of the word. I think Sonya Hartnett has storytelling running in her veins, and The Midnight Zoo is only the first of her books I've read.

Born the second of six children in Australia, Hartnett wrote her first book aged 13, and it was published two years later. She has won the extremely prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the Guardian Children's Book Award. From the way The Midnight Zoo reads, I would imagine that she will be around and writing timeless, thoughtful books for a long time yet.

The story follows two young boys as they cross a war-torn landscape together - one older brother, and one younger. They come across a zoo, untouched by the destruction that war has laid down all around them. A motley collection of creatures, doomed to forever be trapped behind bars, whilst the two boys roam the landscape, yet endlessly flee an unseen enemy. No details of what war is going on are revealed, whilst equally no idea of time is really given. Although the actions of the soldiers as recalled by the boys may seem to be that of Nazis to me, I get the feeling that's just my perception and you could read the tale to be set in many different worlds. The story is more about the timeless question of freedom and war - if you're in a cage but without predators are you more or less free than those being hunted outside the bars? Why do wars happen at all? Is it, as one character in the book asserts, that one person must have something their way and then they will stop at nothing to have it so? Can it be someone else's war if you are living within it?

The story was so mind meltingly beautifully written that I often read pages over for a second time, just to enjoy the turn of phrase again. In a world where all your reading is done with your face in someone's armpit on the tube, I often find myself reading at high speed, and reading stories that are high action. It almost makes the journey go quicker and mentally it sort of fits with the rush of being on the tube. So this rare joy of taking my time reading almost made me forget where I was and how long I'd been standing with an umbrella stabbing me in the elbow etc. It really is gorgeously written.

The book also reminded me slightly of The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. In the way that powerful animals and their interaction with man in a war torn landscape is described, it certainly has similarities, but also the vividness of the descriptions.

I think this story is an incredible gift to children's books - it made me stop and wonder, it got me pondering, and it was written with an incredible richness. I can absolutely see how this book made the Carnegie shortlist - well done to Walker again for another stunning tale for children. http://www.walker.co.uk/The-Midnight-Zoo-9781406331493.aspx

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Why ban books?

When I logged on to the tinterweb on Sunday morning I noticed on my online newspaper rounds that the Telegraph had posted a piece about "offensive" children's books withdrawn by libraries. I find censorship of children's books incredibly interesting, so clicked right away. I even tried to write my dissertation about it, although I have since discovered that my conclusions were, probably as with most undergrads, pretty well trod ground!

The Telegraph points out books which have been removed from UK children's libraries after complaints. This information is more regularly available in the US, with the American Libraries Association publishing a list of most challenged books every year. Each year I am amazed by the appearance of books which are, to me, quite obviously opposing the points that the complainers seem to be offended by. For example To Kill a Mockingbird is repeatedly listed, under the criticism of being racist. In this and many similar cases I suppose the question is whether the complaint is the misled belief that the content actually is racist, or if parents oppose the depiction of a realistic historical scene of racism as suitable reading material. I am not sure which is worse. The first situation supposes an entire nation of complainers who are incapable of interpreting the basic point of a great work of fiction, but the second supposes that any politically charged situation is not suitable material for literature. What will be left if we remove anything that may cause offense?

When writing my dissertation I discovered several amusing organisations such as PABBIS - Parents Against Bad Books in School. Not only does the generic "bad" make me laugh (are they going to start calling for poorly reviewed titles to be removed??) but their site conveniently lists all the books they are opposed to and pulls out the particularly nasty quotes. If you ask me, they've pretty much created their own literary porn site!

The titles picked out by The Telegraph include one or two that I find impossible to comprehend their offensiveness. This leads me to suspect that perhaps the UK is not so free of the narrow minded views that have been banning books in the US as I had thought. For example the Horrible Histories books were pulled out for trivialising violence. Well, duh. History is pretty violent and gory and yet it's part of all our blood, bones and brains so we need to learn about it. As a child I couldn't stand history but loved, LOVED these books. I had every one I could get my hands on. To this day, any historical fact I know is probably remembered from Terry Deary's ligtht hearted and humourous tales. Removing these books seems once again to stem from a desire to censor political and emotional situations from literature.

Other complaints really bordered on the faintly ridiculous - Horrid Henry encourages bad manners - really? HE'S CALLED HORRID HENRY. Of course he has bad manners! The Big Ugly Monster and Little Stone Rabbit makes ugly children feel their lives are not worth living - this might be the conclusion a very young child may reach alone, but surely any adult can see the deeper message is to treat everyone nicely because everyone needs a friend? I believe this is the real issue at hand - parents not talking through issues they come across in books with their children.

I may not be a parent myself so I can't claim to be the most accurate judge, but I hope that when I do have a child of my own I will sit down with them when they're reading picture books and if they are distressed by anything, I will talk it through with them and help them see the deeper meaning. Of course you want to protect your children from unnecessary woe but how much better is it for them to learn about something a bit tricky through a book with a parent before they come across it in real life?

I used to work in the brilliant Norwich Millennium Library and we did have some books that we were unsure if they should be left in with the other picture books. For example The Island by Australian author Armin Greder moved into our "picture books for older readers" section before it eventually moved into the graphic novel section. A distressing parable of racism it was quite clearly not for three year olds, but was a compelling and beautiful book - a tricky one to define the target audience for. This book shows that there are of course some books that need to be given out with more guidance - but this is why librarians are so important! So they can appropriately shelve materials, provide warnings where necessary. But also parents should act as a filter and judge for their own children.

If we start casting about for things to find offense in we could go on forever. I despair at the narrow beliefs and sanitisation of children's books. One of the things I adore about picture books particularly is that they really can be about anything now - that's what makes them so interesting and enriching. There is so much to be learnt from them that we should heartily resist limiting their subject matter so narrowly.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Carnegie Shortlist is here!

Yes! Sure, it was announced about three weeks ago but I've been BUSY! Books don't just publicise themselves dontchaknow and in the last six weeks I have been ALL OVER THE PLACE, including *deep breath* all over London (literally from East to West which is genuinely a long way. Just ask poor Barry Hutchison who was in the cab with me) Windsor, Bristol, Berlin (ok, that was a holiday, whatever), Preston, Lancaster, Liverpool, Bath, Southampton and Reading... Phew! No wonder my body has essentially packed it in and left me eating naught but crumpets and ricey broth stuff....

So anyway, whilst all this country spanning travel was going on, I found out the shortlist had been announced, and I was quite surprised by the result...

David Almond
Hodder (9+)
Ali Lewis 
Andersen (12+)
Andy Mulligan 
David Fickling (12+)
Patrick Ness
Walker (9+)

So as you can see, the only two I haven't read are Between Shades of Grey and The Midnight Zoo. At the FCBG conference this weekend I mentioned that I was surprised not to see Blood Red Road or Life: An Exploded Diagram on there, to which the reply was that the list was aimed more towards younger fiction this year. But ay me for teenage fiction! There are so few high quality prizes awarded to teenage fiction now, especially with the cutting of the BookTrust Teenage Prize that I lament this decision! Someone enlighten me if there is some other reason, except Mal being a previous winner...? 

Anyway, I'm THRILLED to see Small Change for Stuart on there, which used to be one of my titles, hurrah for Lissa and her beautiful little tale. Monster Calls was a dead cert really, deservedly but no surprise there... Probably same for My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece. Everybody Jam was an interesting one - I haven't reviewed this yet, but I loved it - only problem was that the small person I know who is half Australian and would've loved it wouldn't be allowed to read it yet, simply down to a few inappropriate topics and swearwords. Difficult to know the age pitch because of that.

Well I better get on with reading the two I haven't read yet (and the rest) and do some reviewing!! I am currently on The Midnight Zoo and it's absolutely beautiful so far - absolutely escaped into it on my commute. Watch this space!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Carnegie catch up

Oh I've gone and blog failed and been away ages! But I have still been reading LOTS but I may have been distracted from Carnegie titles with work ones - I still think I'll make it eventually!!

First up I feel like I should just catch up on the books on the long list I've read so far. At some point I'll do a post about my thoughts on the ones I'd already read when the long list was announced, but for now, here they are in a boring list:
Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough (I would do anything to see this on the shortlist!!!)
Boys Don't Cry by Malorie Blackman
Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne
You Against Me by Jenny Downham
Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans
The Devil Walks by Anne Fine
Moon Pie by Simon Mason
Trash by Andy Mulligan
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Killing Honour by Bali Rai
The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

So I was doing quite well already! And since challenging myself to read the rest I've read:
My Name is Mina by David Almond
Flip by Martin Bedford
One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson
Caddy's World by Hilary McKay
Shadow by Michael Morpurgo
Life : An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher
Blood Red Road by Moira Young
Annexed by Sharon Dogar
Everybody Jam by Ali Lewis

So, I still have 31 books to read. Ok so I might not manage all of them by the shortlist announcement but I'm still trying for the winner announcement!!

If I had to choose the short list myself at this point I would have:
Long Lankin
One Dog and His Boy
Life: An Exploded Diagram
Boys Don't Cry
A Monster Calls

Then I would have a really tough call between You Against Me, Moon Pie, Small Change for Stuart and The Devil Walks!! But I think Blood Red Road is bound to end up on there.

What's on your list?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A bit of Book Eating down at McDonalds

*DISCLAIMER* Obviously, I am professionally linked with this, so I wouldn't be slagging it off as an initiative anyway but I promise I genuinely do think it's really interesting and in my eyes free books are definitely a good thing here. So this is really just my opinion or I wouldn't write anything about it up here. Just so that's out of the way!

A week or so ago, the news was announced that McDonald's would be serving their Happy Meals with a side of literacy - 9 million free Michael Morpurgo books will be given away in place of the usual plastic toys. As The Guardian said, not everyone found this an "appetising" deal - ho ho. Not usually known for its philanthropic, moral or indeed healthy values, like it or not McDonalds could technically be seen as January's biggest book retailer with this deal - although of course the books will be free. Indeed many would question if a fast food restaurant was the right place to promote literacy and if this was really all a cynical marketing ploy. 

Well, with positive support from the National Literacy Trust, who said - "We are very supportive of McDonald's decision to give families access to popular books, as its size and scale will be a huge leap towards encouraging more families to read together." and Booktrust who commented - "This partnership with McDonald's Happy Meals and HarperCollins sends a really powerful message that reading is for everyone," it seems that officially it's the nutritionists getting cross. The Daily Mail quoted the Children's Food Campaign, who said - "At a time when we have a childhood obesity epidemic this is clearly an inappropriate marketing strategy." Unfortunately it looks like an illiteracy epidemic and an obesity epidemic are knocking heads here. 

So firstly, is McDonald's an appropriate place for a book promotion campaign? When I was at university and writing my dissertation, I was horrified by the trend towards supermarkets becoming the UK's biggest book retailers - their ranges were narrow and at the time, the thought of books alongside tins of beans was highly unappealing to my literary sensitivities (largely it was this article that had me feeling it was all a bit gross - the power of Wall-Mart to make or break a brand!). However, now I'm aware that in fact many busy mums and dads who wouldn't normally venture into a book store, or think to buy their child reading material, may now do so if they can get it whilst they get their weekly shop. Also, just because a supermarket is the biggest retailer of something, doesn't mean it is the best - if you want quality, range, advice and atmosphere then you'll head down to your local indie. I hope! Ideally the volume of books sold in supermarkets helps to support a broader range of retailers and titles.

Similarly, while I might wish that this scheme could be implemented in libraries or a book shop or other literacy related venue, the point of this campaign is to reach those who don't normally enter such environments. According to McDonald's stats, eight out of ten families visit the chain and so the opportunity to target children is unavoidably enormous. 

But is it a cynical marketing ploy? Now of course, whilst publishers need to make money like any other business, can we at least agree the product is something worth marketing? Even if we were rubbing our hands together and gleefully mulling over all those children wanting to buy books, the outcome is still a positive one. But in fact, after a presentation from the team at HC who created the deal, I thought it really was a labour of love. Special sales and editorial worked closely together, with Michael always involved and consulted. Amazing lengths were pursued in order to comply with the regulations required and print the books in time and to a high standard. Literacy was always considered, right down to the POS promoting the books in the restaurants and the website that will accompany the books. The Happy Meal box itself includes a voucher to go to WHSmith and get two other titles for £1 each, also by Morpurgo. Every effort has been taken to ensure it's a love of books that is grown from this scheme.

I couldn't agree more with Jack Sallabank at the National Literacy Trust who said their interest "is not related to the number of Happy Meals sold. Nine million books will be distributed to children during the campaign. In a society where one in three children don't own a book, this type of campaign will be hugely effective," I don't really believe that anyone goes to McDonalds and buys the Happy Meal for the toy - even as a child I was definitely more interested in the nuggets than whatever swivelling plastic creation was next to it. So, conversely, I don't really believe many customers will go into McDonalds in order to get a book for free. If it was the book they wanted, they could buy all six adventures in a bind up, which has an RRP of £7.99. I haven't had a Happy Meal in a few years, so I'm not sure how much they are, but if they're still about £2 then you can purchase the book for less money than six Happy Meals. 

All I'm saying is that yes some people may question the moral integrity of partnering with McDonalds, of course and if you think it's a terrible idea, that's fine - and I'm happy the whole thing has created the discussion. But in my opinion, children are currently eating at McDonald's regardless and so if we can put a book in their hands whilst they're there, then all the better. If even a 1% of the books are taken home, read, and enjoyed and spark the reading bug, it will be worth it. 

McDonalds will be giving away Mudpuddle Farm books with Happy Meals until 7th February. http://www.happystudio.com/ 

Friday, 20 January 2012

Carnegie review number 6 - White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

Oooooh it's a goodie! I've been meaning to pick up Marcus' books for actual years - I remember being at some SYP event in Foyles before I got into publishing and I was going to every book talk I could find. Marcus was the only speaker who was a kid's author and he asked if anyone worked in children's publishing. I'm pretty sure I put my hand up like a right nerd even though I wasn't technically employed yet! I thought it was interesting he'd worked for Walker before he became an author, so knew the technical side of things (also, later found that lovely Jonathan Stroud also worked for Walker before becoming an author, so it's a trend clearly!). Then a wonderful friend at Norwich Library, who gave me massive help in getting in to publishing, also recommended his books (cowabunga, if you're reading this). So it's been something I've been getting around to for a while...

Well I'm going to have to gradually acquire the whole backlist because White Crow was an absolutely brilliant read. Naturally written in an extremely graceful and vivid descriptive style, it was not only beautiful but very thought provoking. And having taken one whole unit on the American Gothic at UEA, and thus considering myself an expert, I can tell you it's very gothic! A fascination with death, themes of doubles, creepy houses... oh and a crow! All of the above are major gothic symbols.

White Crow is a story about a teenage girl who moves to a small coastal town for the summer with her dad. For reasons I won't divulge and spoil, Rebecca and her father's relationship is very strained. She soon meets Ferelith (rumoured to be named after the brilliant librarian! Now if that won't get you a nomination what will!) a strange, lonely and extremely intelligent girl who seems preoccupied with thoughts of death, the afterlife and the gradual ruin of the town as it falls into the sea. Another story runs alongside this modern day one, of a rather naughty priest in the 1700s who is involved in some grizzly work by a French doctor who is also preoccupied with the afterlife.

I found when I first started reading I was expecting this book to be quite whimsical and romantic as I didn't know much about it, but it quickly turned into a tense, chilling, gothic thriller with a deep philosophical element. It's really not a long book at all, and so packs an awful lot of thought and description into a succinct narrative. I found every time I had to put this book down I couldn't stop thinking about it and was mulling it over after finishing it too. Having a proper think about death and what happens next is something I don't often do - I tend to look sideways, above and around it. Really thinking about it can only last a few minutes before I feel like I'm leaning over the edge of something I can't really balance on. If you ask me, the real magic of books, and particularly children's books is that feeling that you're being shown something for the first time and taking a perspective you'd never imagined before. Whether, as adults, it's not really the first time, that feeling in a great book is just magic. White Crow really had that and prodded my brain into thinking over things I usually avoid. That's why I would say this is not only a major contender for this year's Carnegie but a genuine crossover title that adults and children alike should read.

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick is published by Orion and is out now in paperback. It is longlisted for the 2012 Carnegie Medal.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Off Topic Review: The Fear by Charlie Higson

OK I got distracted - The Fear is not on the Carnegie long list. We could have a whole debate about why (But WHY? Do I need to go set up a horror prize? Why should books like this have to have their own prize though? Anyway...) but I just really. Wanted. To. Read. It. I have been quite obsessed with these books since the first one came out in its shiny foil skull covered glory. After the second one came out I was working at Bath Children's Literature Festival so managed to see an event with Charlie Higson and Nick Lake and worked myself into an embarrassing fangirl state in the signing queue. But now my hardback of The Dead says "Don't have nightmares" in it, which is worth it!

The Fear is the third in a series penned by Young Bond author, Fast Show comedian and former UEA student (I'm going to start a list - oh UEA!) Charlie Higson. Already well established as a children's author with the Young Bond series, Charlie took a leap into the world of more grizzly teen/YA writing with much success. Zombies were the new vampires, so they said - I can't agree that zombies have taken off as widely as vamps yet, but they sure have infiltrated many levels of entertainment and often on more of a cultish level. For example the unlikely combination of dystopian steampunk zombie romance Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel.

These books are set in a contemporary London, ravaged by a mysterious disease which has turned everyone over fourteen into a flesh hungry zombie. These zombies aren't just a bit green - they're positively repulsive with rotting bodies, pus filled boils and bits falling off left, right and centre. Charlie demonstrates the look here. The kids featured in the books are bang up to date urban teens, who chat along with slang that even I, modern yoof as I am, didn't always understand. But no worries bruv, I'm no mug and I'm bare down with the speak now.

I don't want to ruin too much of the plot in case you haven't read the other books but I will say this - you have to be prepared for some gruesome deaths and that any character could, at any time, die. Horribly. It's so much fun to watch the kids hole up in some of the big sights in London including the Imperial War Museum, The Tower of London and even Buckingham Palace. Apocalyptic visions are pretty rife in teen fiction at the moment but I haven't read something else set so firmly in an environment I really know, and reading The Fear, I could picture the streets they were walking along, the alleyways the zombies appear from. Endlessly enjoyable.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this latest installment in the series - waiting for the next one is what always gets me as they're completely addictive, fast paced, thrill filled books! I vote we put Charlie and Will Hill to an Xbox off to see who wins and put this zombie/vampire debate to the test once and for all.

The Fear by Charlie Higson is out now in hardback, paperback will be out in April. It follows The Enemy and The Dead in the same series.