November 2008 Archives

Nut Cracker

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Jan Pienkowski/David Walser
Autumn 2008

David Walser and Jan Pienkowski have combined again to great effect in retelling The Nutcracker. Like two craftsmen plucked from the story itself, they have created a spectacular piece of art. The cover is glittered, with gold foil edging and embossed accents. At the cover's centre, a heart-shaped cutout reveals the lovers. Inside, illustrating the story, there are five full-page illustrations with white paper silhouettes on sparkling, textured backgrounds. The finale is a stunning 3D picture, complete with fairytale castle, trees, icicles and the lovers in a horse-drawn sleigh.

The original story is not the most straight-forward tale but Walser does an admirable job bringing to life the spells and magic of Uncle Drosselmeier and the furious battles with the Mouse King and his army.

It is a book that will delight children of all ages from the moment they first spy it in a bookshop or unwrap it for themselves. It is perfect for reading aloud to KS1 but is equally sought after by children as old as 10 and 11. I read this with a small group of girls who are normally reluctant to read aloud. They were completely captivated from start to finish.

reviewed for ACHUKA by Michael Lucchesi

Jane Eyre - Classical Comics

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Emily Bronte/Karen Wenborn
Classical Comics
Autumn 2008

Classical Comics' second new offering is slightly more perplexing than their release of Frankenstein. With their original line up of Shakespeare stories - Macbeth and Henry V - it was clear that they had chosen 'rip roaring' stories full of adventure and action to tempt disaffected teenage boys into reading. With Jane Eyre it's less easy to see who is being targeted?

The artwork, although agonizingly beautiful, is more watercolour than Photoshop and adds to the dated feel of this comic. Walking around my class (year 6) I found it difficult to find a group that would take to a story about a young girl's turbulent journey through childhood to the heartaches of adulthood. With a GCSE class, one could position the narrative within the timeline of feminism, and the literary tradition of liberated female authors, as well as using it as a launchpad for exploring adaptations of classic stories. Therein lies the contradiction that this version of Jane Eyre never shakes off: a story undoubtedly aimed at adults, repackaged in a format that is read and adored by boys.

reviewed for ACHUKA by Michael Lucchesi

Mary Shelley/Jason Cobley
Classical Comics
Autumn 2008

Classical Comics are an interesting operation. Based in the UK, since 2006 they have been publishing graphic novels aimed at early teen readers. Instead of churning out Batmans however, the comic company has made a name for itself with some excellent adaptations of Shakespeare plays (Henry V and Macbeth). Their unique selling point is that they offer differently lettered editions depending on whether you want to read the original text, a full translation into modern English in the spirit of the original, or an easier to read full modernisation.

The first of their new titles is Mary Shelley's gothic horror Frankenstein. Sensitively adapted by Jason Cobley, with all the gore and horror painted superbly by Declan Shalvey. There are only two versions of this one - an Original text closely based on Shelley's novel, and a Quick text version that updates and condenses the dialogue without compromising the story. My class of Year 6 children has been mesmerized by this classic tale, with the quick text the preferred read. Unlike the slow, cumbersome nuts-n-bolts Frankenstein of old, this version is stylish and cool.

reviewed for ACHUKA by Michael Lucchesi

The Pretender

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David Belbin
Five Leaves
November 2008

Oh, I loved this book! I have read several of David Belbin's young adult novels. Each of them has been readable and engrossing, but I don't remember any one of them having quite the touch of class that the author manages to maintain throughout the length of this very literary mystery memoir, published by Five Leaves on their adult list.

Set at the turn of the 1990s, it is written in the voice of a nineteen-year-old with a talent for literary pastiche. The tone is perfectly pitched. A marvellous mix of confidence, embarrassment, sexual inexperience and adolescent audacity. It's a voice most often encountered in short stories (Somerset Maugham, V. S. Pritchett) rather than novels, especially contemporary novels. It works perfectly here.

Mark discovers his power of pretending at school, when he writes a story in the style of Dickens, and the teacher accuses him of cheating. During a time-out year in Paris he finds himself faking an early Hemingway story and the die is cast.

From that point on (most of the book is played out in Soho, in the offices of a struggling literary review preparing for a special anniversary issue) Mark's mind is preoccupied with the escalating consequences of his successive deceptions. He is drawn to almost farcical lengths when, on the very day of the author's funeral in 1990, he sneaks into Roald Dahl's writing shed to knock up an undiscovered Dahl treasure for the magazine to publish.

This is the closest Belbin comes to stretching reader credulity. Most of the authors mentioned are real. Belbin deploys his knowledge of the literary scene and circumstances surrounding their lives, and the peculiarities of their styles and working practices, to good and pleasing effect. His creation of a fictional author - James Sherwin -as the focus of the final fraud is convincing enough. The secondary characters are also well-drawn, especially Tony, the editor of the failing magazine, a poet who feels his own talent has been sacrificed to his endeavour, with no due appreciation coming his way.

Highly Recommended to readers who enjoy literary mysteries and don't require dead bodies in their thrillers.

The Land Of Nursery Rhyme

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Alice Daglish & Ernest Rhys, ill. Charles Folkard
Autumn 2008

A facsimile-style edition of a book first published (Dent & Sons) in 1932. It's a superb collection of traditional nursery rhymes with illustrations by the Rackham-infuenced Folkard (who learnt to illustrate designing programmes for magic shows) that are bold and timeless.

The printing quality of the book (it was printed in Spain) is particulalrly noteworthy, with heavy black ink that makes each page shine and shimmer.
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Jen Bryant, ill. Melissa Sweet
Autumn 2008

William Carlos Williams - a poet who also worked as a family doctor - has long been a hero of mine so, while some people may question what audience a picture book biography of a twentieth century American poet is aimed at, I'm predisposed to look kindly on it. The illustrations, strong and modern with collage effects, together with the artfully simple condensing of Williams' life to its bare essentials, produce a strong evocation of the life of a working man scribbling lines for poems on yellow prescription pads when he can, corresponding by letter with other poets and writers in the evening, in those pre-internet days.
Williams' 'The Red Wheelbarrow' and 'This Is Just To Say' have been much anthologised in children's collections, so a copy of this book should be in every primary school library.

Silverfin - The Graphic Novel

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Charlie Higson & Kev Walker
Autumn 2008

Like the Young Bond series itself, the first Young Bond Graphic Novel adaption is a cut above all others in its class. Kev Walker's artwork and layouts are more Marvel than Manga and capture the look and feel of the 1930s and a more classic Bond - Sean Connery. The effect is magical, appealing to both older readers as well as early teens in a style similar to Neil Gaiman's Stardust.

The graphic format suits Young Bond like a black tux and an Aston Martin, and even though there are no major omissions from the original, Kev Walker's artwork creates a tense pace with lots of visual winks for Bond fans. Like Bond wearing #007 on his chest during the sports day race.

As a teacher, I really hope this format is successful as there is a lack of graphic novels for early and pre-teen readers with most of the Batmans, Young Sherlock Holmes and Young Indiana's being too adult orientated. Unlike these, Silverfin would sit happily in a year 4 class and is the perfect tonic for Year 6 boys who wrestle with and lose interest in orthodox print fiction.

reviewed for ACHUKA by Michael Lucchesi

The Pencil

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Allan Ahlberg ill. Bruce Ingman
Autumn 2008

A lonely pencil draws a little boy for company, but his creation becomes rather demanding. Soon the simple pencil boy, dog and cat have insisted they be coloured in and before too long a whole world that the pencil has created are expecting more and more of him.

This is a delightful tale from Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman that sees the return of 'Banjo', a charming pencil drawn boy. A super read for younger children, which encourages involvement, pokes fun at the reader-author relationship. I read this to a slightly older audience, a group of 8-9 year olds, and they also very much enjoyed anticipating what would happen to the pencil's artistic solutions. We loved the battle that occurred, in both the story and pictures, when pencil draws its arch rival - the rubber! This, as with so many of Ahlberg's stories, is such a treat, and one that is worth coming back to again and again.

reviewed for ACHUKA by Danielle Alder.

The Carbon Diaries 2015

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Saci Lloyd
Autumn 2008

Both the futuristic setting and the cover design led me to expect a different type of young adult novel. The "Coming soon... The Carbon Diaries 2017" facing page 1 gives the clue to the type of book Saci Lloyd has written. I read it on a train travelling to and from the Bacon and Rothko exhibitions and the book was a welcome contrast to the heavily engaging content seen there.
What we have in Carbon Diaries is essentially a family sitcom as reported by one of the daughters. World energy supplies have reached such a pass that each family is given a carbon footprint ration. The authorities respond swiftly whenever the ration is exceeded. Just six months into the situation the father is cracking up. Because 2015 is not all that far away, and because the author is careful not to be too outlandish in her predicted vision of Britain seven years from now, the book is very believable, which makes it at once highly comic and thought-provoking. Most readers, once they've finished laughing, will think, Hang on a minute, is this really the way things are heading? How are we going to cope?