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!