February 2009 Archives

Running On The Cracks

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Julia Donaldson
January 2009

Well, a full-length young adult novel from the creator of The Gruffalo and other successful picture books! That Donaldson is an expert in the shorter form is now unquestioned, and it is cause for celebration, both for her and for us, that she has decided to launch out in a new genre. The question everyone will want to know is: Can Donaldson 'do' a long narrative? The form is so different from the short rhyming texts of hers we are used to appreciating.

The answer to the question has to be a resounding Yes. Certainly by the end of the novel. I confess I felt a little uncertain during its opening pages, but alternating narrative voices always take a little time to become established. (I was also reading the early part of the novel on a train and there was a distractingly giggly conversation going on in the bay behind me.)

The main character's voice belongs to Leo, a girl who has been living with her aunt and uncle following the death of both her parents in an accident. She is compelled to run away from home, both by a desire to discover her Chinese heritage and by the discomfort she feels in her uncle's presence.

Once she has arrived in Glasgow the torque of the narrative really begins to pull the reader along. The secondary voice is that of Finley, a boy whom Leo befriends in Glasgow and who helps her avoid discovery.

In addition to the two separate narrative points of view, Donaldson extremely cleverly interjects newspaper reports, a shopping list, letters, an email... Coupled with the explicitly documented Glaswegian locations, this gives the book cast-iron credibility, creating a story that is believable, exciting and moving. (There is a touching episode near the end of the book when Finley's family hear all about his role in Leo's affairs.)

ed. Leonie Flynn, Daniel Hahn & Susan Reuben
A & C Black
January 2009

As a search of this blog will reveal (if you scroll down after clicking the link), I was not an immediate fan of the Ultimate Book Guides. Coming to them from the point of view of someone who was used to contributing to works of reference such as Larousse Dictionary of Writers, H. W. Wilson's World Authors and the New DNB, I initially found the tone irritatingly enthusiastic and exclamatory and, in the worst instances, such as the entry (unrevised in the new edition) for The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, vacuous.

But I was missing the point. These are not books for the reference shelf, but hands-on guides intended to encourage and help young readers to move on from one book to the next. In this context, the range of contributors and the pervasively jolly and upbeat tone are essential ingredients.

The first Guide for 8-12's is now five years old, so a revised and updated edition is timely. The first book had 288 pages. The new one has 416, but is more compact in its dimensions (a much better size for reading and carrying around) and only has room for two entries per page in comparison to three in the earlier edition.

Additions include recent titles by the likes of Frank Cottrell Boyce (a shame he is not one of the contributors), A Dog Called grk by Joshua Doder (a shame neither Chris Priestley the contibutor nor the Next? sidebar make reference to the fact that this is the first book in a sequence rather than a one-off title) and Fly By Night by Frances Hardynge. Caroline Lawrence who was only represented in the first book by The Thieves of Ostia, Book 1 in her Roman Mysteries series, now deservedly has her entry retitled to refer to the series as a whole. I was pleased to see Rodman Philbrick's Freak The Mighty in this new edition, and although losses from a book of this type are to be regretted and can be somewhat poignant, they are inevitable. I noted that there were no longer entries for The Ennead by Jan Mark or Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo, though bouth authors remain sufficiently represented by other entries.

Entries receive one, two or three dots "as a rough indication of the relative difficulty of a title". This is a new feature and although much better than any attempt to give age advice, the allocation of the dots does appear to relate to age appropriateness rather than reading difficulty. Morris Gleitzman's Once, a very accessible and easy book to read from the point of view of vocabulary and simple sentence structure, is given three dots, presumably because of its subject matter. As the entry itself says, "it is a quick read and written in simple language, but the subject is not for young children." All credit to the editors for including the title in this book, rather than reserving it for the teen guide.

As important as the entries themselves, are the sidebars giving suggestions for what to read next. At the book's launch party, Leonie Flynn announced that the Ultimate Book Guide blog would henceforth be having a Book Of The Week entry (each Monday) with the all-important What To Read Next as an essential feature. ACHUKA will blog these recommendations to help spread the word.


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Morris Gleitzman
January 2009

Last summer I was sent a very early proof copy of the new novel by Morris Gleitzman, a sequel to Once, a book published at the same time as and - media-attention-wise - unjustly overshadowed by The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

I have always had the highest regard for Gleitzman and regard him as one of the very best writers for the young of the past twenty years.

For months that proof copy lay untouched. A second proof copy arrived. I did not read that either. I had, I realised when I finally started reading the book in its final published format, been nervous of encountering ten-year-old Felix again in case any further adventures had a reptrospective lessening of the impact of the first book, read with so much admiration.

Picking up from the end of the previous book, Felix is accompanied by six-year-old Zelda (not his sister) and from the first words, "Then we ran for our lives..." this is the story of how they together attempt to escape being captured by Nazis.

We see many atrocities through child's eyes (the most painful of all at the end of the book) but there is sufficient good fortune and good deed-doing to make this an ever-hopeful edge-of-the-seat read. The character of Genia - a woman who makes her home a safe-house for Felix and Zelda, giving them different names - is strongly drawn and helps ground the central part of a novel which might otherwise, as its title suggests, have been a then-fortunately-then-unfortunately continuum.

Another grounding motif is the figure of Richamal Crompton, described by Carol Ann Duffy in The Ultimate Book Guide as 'the patron saint of childhood'. Certainly, in this book the creator of William acts on more than one occasion as the guardian saint of Felix, helping him to avoid potentially fatal dangers.

Gleitzman's style is always highly accessible, so this book can be highly recommended for any child who is ready to confront the horrors of Nazi tyranny. Thank heavens there is no age-banding on its cover.

Life, Interrupted

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Damian Kelleher
Piccadilly Press
January 2009

Damian Kelleher is well-known on the children's books scene. He was book editor in the glory days of Young Telegraph and T2, frequently chairs children's book events and is seen at all the best publisher parties. For that reason, if I had not genuinely liked this book I would probably have kept my thoughts to myself.

The first thing to be said about it - this is Kelleher's debut as full-length novelist, as far as I'm aware - is that it is extremely fluently written, in an unpretentious, unshowy first-person continuous present. The second thing to say is that the subject matter - a mother of two boys dying of cancer - is not one I exactly relax into.

There is a puff on the back jacket from Jacqueline Wilson in which she uses the phrase "searingly sad at times", so I was braced for a hard read. As it happens, the mother is only a peripheral part of the story. The focus remains throughout on Luke and his brother Jesse, and the uncle who arrives to take care of them.

Conicidentally, as soon as I had finished Life, Interrupted I picked up The Paris Review Interviews vol. 3 and read the interview with Ralph Ellison, in which the interviewers remark at one point, "A common criticism of first novels is that the central incident is either omitted or weak." It's possible that some may feel in this book Kelleher does not give the central incident sufficient weight or emotional cache, relegating it, as the title of the book implies, to an interruption.

It seems to me that that would be to grossly misunderstand what Kelleher is trying to show here. In concentrating on an important schools football final and in optimistically acclimatising to life with their gay uncle, the boys are coming to terms in their own way with what has happened, and doing what boys often do differently from girls when life is interrupted by major events - moving on more quickly and with less overt emotion.