Monthly Archives: March 2006

A.L.I.E.E.E.N.

Lewis Trondheim

First Second

1596430958

Apr 2006

‘there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them.’


Since the novel’s wholesale acceptance into the canon of mainstream literature, it is difficult to look back to the time Jane Austen writes of above in ‘Northanger Abbey’, when its value was decried, its art-form denied, proof, if any be needed the bastions of the ‘literary establishment’ are not always equal to the challenge of realising the form in which literary classics will make themselves presented in future years’
Should the subject of performance recommend itself still through the genius, wit and taste Austen refers to above, readers could do far worse than to look to the much maligned graphic novel for inspiration. It is exciting therefore that Holtzbrinck Publishing in New York and Pan Macmillan should have collaborated in the formation of a new imprint, First Second, for the wide dissemination of the form across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The first title published by First Second is the acronymically titled ‘A.L.I.E.E.E.N.’ – ‘Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties’ by French artist and writer Lewis Trondheim. Cleverly masquerading as a journal of alien life-forms, as children’s literature and pedagogy for beings from outer space, the journal was purportedly found in Mid-April 2006 within the epicentre of a perfect circle of singed grass’
Comprising of nine interwoven episodic chapters, we meet a bizarre cast of characters and players. Starting off with what appears to be a charming idyll, events rapidly take a turn towards the depraved and the gratuitous as misfortune follows misfortune, bodily functions are taken to extremes and sado-masochistic tendencies are lived out. This is an unexpected yet somehow also a deeply satisfying read.
In the body of this text there are no words. Between individual frames and their guttering, we as readers are liberated to interpret and decide upon time-spans, probable actions and interactions and ultimately to sequence this narrative form. There is nothing derivative in an art-form that prompts us towards this and in an age when visual literacy exercises an increased dominance ‘ whether through computers and the internet, the television, cinema etc ‘ it can surely only be a matter of time before proponents of the graphic novel exert influence to ensure works such as ‘A.L.I.E.E.E.N.’ assume their rightful place within mainstream literary discourse.

Hugo Pepper

Paul Stewart Illus. Chris Riddell

Doubleday

0385607253

Apr 2006

Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell share one of the most dynamic author-illustrator partnerships in children’s literature today. The fruits of this truly collaborative process shimmer, shine and truly stand-out from the crowded book shelves in shops, libraries, schools and homes. Their ‘Far Flung Adventures’ series ‘ each one eponymously named after its hero or heroine ‘ have charted a fantastical world perfect for fuelling the minds and imaginations of small children.
‘Hugo Pepper’ is the third, and sadly reportedly also the final, novel in this series. Mystery, adventure and humour combine as Hugo pieces together the fragments of stories amassed by renowned story collector Wilfrid McPherson, the background to the blight that The Firefly Quarterly has become upon Firefly Square and the role of himself and his family to the legend of Brimstone Kate and her lost treasure. The joy here is that readers make their own deductions in parallel alongside Hugo to arrive at the various kinds of misappropriation the media are wielding to exert control over the community of Firefly Square.
What is particularly admirable in ‘Hugo Pepper’ is that Stewart and Riddell have crafted in this book a remarkably apt yet good-humoured exploration of the way stories construct our sense of identity ‘ our personal history with ancestries amalgamated, the platform of the present and the possibilities the future poses for us all’
The gentlemen are on fine flying form here, prompting the request ‘Please Sirs, we want some more”

Frog, Bee and Snail Look for Snow

Loek Koopmans

Floris Books

0863155596

Apr 2006

A disconcerting sense of insularity and introspection accompanies the statistic that only three percent of books published in the UK are translations. It is heartening therefore that publishers such as WingedChariot Press www.wingedchariot.com and Floris Books www.florisbooks.co.uk are making available in the English language a range of European picture books. Dutch author and illustrator Loek Koopmans’ book ‘Frog, Bee and Snail Look for Snow’ is the latest addition to the list of translations from Floris Books.
Just as Kenneth Grahame’s opening to the ‘The Wind in the Willows’ with mole scraping, scratching, scrabbling and scrooging, ‘muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight” marvellously evokes the long awaited onset of spring, Koopman’s use of intensely bright light in the forest, the vivid fresh greens of the foliage and the irreverent chattering of little bird brilliantly capture that first sense that spring has sprung.
Amongst his chatterings, bird mentions to snail the snows that fell in winter, their depth, their whiteness and cold. Entranced by this description, snail asks his friend bee about snow, but bee has spent the winter in her hive so snow is unfamiliar to her also. Through a series of exchanges, snail, bee and frog ‘ traversing at once between them dominions of land, sky and earth are unable to find out about snow. So begins an adventure, an epic animal voyage in a quest for knowledge’ Moving through the seasons from spring to summer, to autumn, the trio remain still unable to find out about snow, exhausted by their efforts they fall asleep only to awake to an unknown world in white’
Koopmans illustrations of nature are wonderfully rendered and are brilliantly accurate. His use of lighting brings each spread to life helping to create a beautiful book with an unexpected, yet a holistic ending.

Help! I’m a Classroom Gambler

Pete Johnson

Corgi Children’s

0440866278

Apr 2006

‘Thanks to our invention, no pupil in this school need ever be bored again. That’s an incredible achievement.’

‘Help! I’m a classroom gambler’ displays Pete Johnson’s characteristic wit and strong-hold over capturing both the politics and demotic of the classroom. Protagonist Harvey and best-friend George have devised a cunning strategy to assuage the boredom and monotony of their typical school regimes ‘ tedious assemblies, long-running lessons and teachers that have fallen into becoming caricatures of themselves’
Gambling! How many times might the Geography teacher blow his nose, how many times might the French teacher interject ‘Well’ into his discourse and how many times might maths teacher, Wobblebottom, scratch?! The possibilities are endless and soon Harvey and George’s ‘Chancer Syndicate’ becomes the speak of the school.
The stakes are raised, however, when school football hero Jonny insists that money be betted rather than ice-creams or student servitude. Several sub-plots are skilfully interwoven at this point in the novel ‘ George feels animosity towards Harvey who succumbs to Jonny’s demands, Harvey’s flawless sister Cynthia finds out about the syndicate and threatens to tell, only to be appeased through deception that her heart-throb Jonny might holster feelings towards her, finally and most concerning of all, Harvey’s locker is broken into and the week’s wagers are stolen’
Through a series of deft moves some form of resolve is reached for each of the above and the constituent parts of this novel make for a real romp of a read that will leave readers ravenous for more by Pete Johnson. On concluding the novel one can’t help but wonder whether Harvey and George have learnt more practical skills and greater awareness than their prescribed school-life could ever have taught them’ a chilling conclusion to be left pondering.

What do elephants do?

Hazel Lincoln

Floris Books

0863155502

Mar 2006

The debate over nurture and nature, inherited and acquired tendencies and characteristics continues to be assuaged through education and child development theories. ‘What do elephants do’ forms a phenomenological exposition through the eyes of an anthropomorphised baby elephant, Esme.
This lavishly illustrated story opens in springtime. Just as many of the animals of Africa are able to welcome new babies to their family enclaves, so too are the elephants with the birth of baby Esme. Whilst struggling to stand on her own four feet, Esme finds she has a problem ‘ something continuously trips her up, something odd that dangles from the middle of her face’
From here-on-in, the story focuses around Esme’s needs and wants as she encounters the world around her and its manifold inhabitants’ When Esme is thirsty, she sees zebras drinking and wonders ‘What do elephants do?’ When Esme is hot, she sees tortoise shaded by his shell, but, ‘What do elephants do?’ This simple, yet clever framework forms the base for the remainder of the story as Esme learns just what it is that elephants do and the importance of her trunk, thereby realising her own identity.
An elephant’s proboscis is a strange, peculiar and fairly alien appendage, through sensitively examining its role and importance to the identity of elephants, Hazel Lincoln creates a valuable message as to the importance of assessing actions rather than mere appearance. Here is a beautifully consistent picture-book whose world is safely outlined within its first double-page spread and given character and brought into context thereafter.

“Whoops – there goes Joe!”

Miles Gibson Illus. Neal Layton

Macmillan

1405055162

Apr 2006

The zany and intriguingly titled ‘Whoops ‘ there goes Joe!’ forms the sequel to Miles Gibson and Neal Layton’s first collaboration about the Bodkin family; ‘Little Archie’. These are fantastic, affordable-with-pocket-money, perfectly shaped and sized little books ideal for little hands that belong to big readers!
The Bodkin family still live by, or rather attempt to live by, the family maxim ‘You have to stay regular’. However regularity is a rare commodity when Uncle Bernie is about, especially when he is accompanied by ‘an enormous parcel made from cardboard and held together with tape and string’ ‘ a parcel furthermore containing another of his madcap inventions, on this occasion a television’
What could possibly go wrong with a television? When it has added grommets, gizmos, whatsits and thingamajigs, the answer is quite a lot’! Sure enough, before too long baby Joe is addicted to the two-hundred educational channels being pumped into the Bodkin living room. Even the attractions of playing in the garden with Archie and having a strawberry milkshake with mum are diminished now. Mr Bodkin embarks upon the enviable and engaging activity of reading baby Joe a story. All is going well until he falls asleep, then the danger begin as’

‘Whoops ‘ there goes Joe!’


So begins an inter-channel chase made ‘remote ‘ (!) from the reader by its metafictional qualities as first Joe and then Archie are assimilated into the consuming drama of television.
At base, a ripping yarn, this book is also a gentle reminder of the importance of spending quality time with children and a caution against being lured into using the television as constant occupation ‘ one never quite knows just what it is that children might be being sucked into!
It is impossible not to be captivated by the level of attention and detail that has gone into the production of these little books. The pairing of Miles Gibson and Neal Layton is pure gold. Small in stature it might be, but this book, along with its prequel will make a great addition to any child’s bookshelves.

In the land of Merfolk

Daniela Drescher

Floris Books

0863155588

Mar 2006

Published originally in German and translated into English by Polly Lawson, ‘In the Land of Merfolk’ represents another European offering to the UK picture-book market made available through Floris Books.
Cheerfully combining poetry with expansive pastoral landscapes viewed at the eye-line of little people themselves, this book takes us on an imaginative and magical tour of the countryside depicted through the seasons. There is nothing incongruous in the fact that fairies, elves, mermaids and nymphs form a part of the populace on the pages and the loose descriptions of their actions and lifestyle leaves readers to piece together their own ‘take’ on this world-view provided in miniature.
Daniela Drescher’s short book leaves one pensive in contemplation as to belief and the experiential evidence of the senses.

The Awful Tale of Agatha Bilke

Sian Pattenden

Short Books

1904977510

Mar 2006

‘Some children are unfortunate others are just plain bad’


Agatha Bilke is a problem child, a girl with more than a passing penchant for arson. At their wits end, her parents admit her to the TreadQuietly Clinic for interesting children an institute run by Dr Alan and Tim Humphrey, who believe they have developed the ultimate ‘creative’ therapy that will revolutionise the treatment of all forms of childhood anxiety, phobia, hysteria and neurosis’ their belief is somewhat misplaced.
This is journalist, Sian Pattenden’s first children’s books and Short Books fist work of fiction and it is certainly a most distinctive and readable offering. Characters in this short, pacy book are in equal parts peculiar and endearing ‘ Barry, a boy who has the unfortunate affliction not to be able to refer to himself in anything but the third person, is one of the most humorous and memorable.
Each child admitted to the TreadQuietly clinic has his own particular fear, phobia or some-such foible; for one this is toast, for another the belief that meteorites might befall the planet at any given point’ Treatment of these characters is largely individualistic which provides a framed setting for a series of vignettes rather than the cohesion of more traditional novels. The stylish and sophisticated illustrations lend the book a quirky fable-like feel. It would sit comfortably amidst stories with a similar ‘cautionary’ feel including Tim Burton’s ‘Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy’, Tom Baker’s ‘The Boy Who Kicked Pigs’ and of course the seminar tales by Hillaire Belloc.

Heretic

Sarah Singleton

Simon and Schuster

1416904034

Feb 2006

‘Look at me, Elizabeth. Do you think I’m wicked? Do you think I’m a devil? In my time everyone was a Catholic, because there was only one Church, but even then I was different from the others because of the shadow land. Don’t let your mind be clouded by what other people have told you. Judge me with your heart.’
So speaks the strange green child that twelve-year-old Elizabeth finds in the forest as she secretly tends a ruined Catholic shrine. The year is 1586 and Protestant England is an unforgiving place for Catholics. But mindless blame, fear and persecution are nothing new, as the green child, Isabella, can testify. She herself was born more than three hundred years ago, the child of a wise woman and midwife. Her mother was executed as a witch, a scapegoat when a rich family’s baby was born with a faulty heart, and since then Isabella has hidden mostly in the land of faeries, leaving her bones hidden in a hollow tree awaiting her return.
Yes, this all sounds a little strange, but Sarah Singleton has a gift for blending the seen and the unseen, the matter-of-fact and the magical, into a convincing whole. After all, what is the magical other than something we are not used to or don’t understand? And that is what this book deals with; the problem of how the different (in this case the spiritually different) can be demonised by the unthinking mob. Set against the hounding of Ruth Leland (Isabella’s mother) and the sixteenth century persecution of Catholics is the simple and powerful friendship that develops between the two girls. For Isabella her tragedy is done, and yet she berates herself for not having stayed at her mother’s side until the bitter end. For Elizabeth the fear has just begun: the Queen has sent the brutal Christopher Merrivale to hunt for the priest that her family is sheltering. Perhaps here there is a chance for the two girls to help each other: for Isabella to gain ‘closure’ and a second chance with a loving family, whilst Elizabeth gains safety and escape.
A powerful tale against a strong historical backdrop, this book introduces many themes but works most of all because of the focus on the girls’ fears and hopes and needs. In comparison, the sinister Merrivale, the dogmatic and ecstatic priest, even the cold-hearted faeries, seem unimportant, no matter what their schemes and desires. The writing, too, is mostly first rate, with a great feel for visual detail:
‘As the men whispered one to another, light and shadows slid over their faces, alternately revealing and hiding eyes, noses, mouths moist with wine and words. They looked like demons, leering and grimacing.’
A highly appealing, multi-dimensional historical adventure. Check it out.

No Room for Napoleon

Adria Meserve

The Bodley Head

0370328469

Mar 2006

Food for thought’
Media reportage over the past year has brilliantly emphasised the role a well-balanced diet of food-stuffs plays towards children’s development. Raising the profile of nutritional requirements has created a focal-point for an agenda of change which hopefully will mean ‘ in educational settings at least ‘ that no child will be malnourished or starved of the building blocks that fuel their development’
At this point, we need to speak up ‘ loud and proud ‘ as to the valuable roles that diverse narratives and indeed narrative forms play in our emotional development. If picture books are to remain merely as an educative preserve – nothing more than a transitional stepping stone towards independent reading – as a society we are depriving our children of rich visual and textual tapestries and of the resultant dynamic story-sharing that can and does accompany such weaving and unpicking! Stories form the vessels through which society passes down its learning, its history and its sense of self’ we must take care our actions as sensitive, sentient beings do not lead to the emotional emaciation of our future generation…
‘No Room For Napoleon’ with its vibrant and engaging illustrations and narrative typifies the kinds of adventuring and exploration imbued within successful picture-books. Aptly named Napoleon, a little dog with big ideas, at once fulfils the role of hero and anti-hero and constitutes both conflict and resolve within the book. His arrival, with telescope, on a Utopian island is initially welcomed by its inhabitants – Crab, Bunny and Bear – however, cracks in the animals’ friendship begin to appear as Napoleon’s ideas grow in size, breadth, depth and impact’
As well as exploring issues of friendship and of the unwitting bullying, or manipulation that arises through the story, illustration and text operate on dual and dialectic levels exploding into other arenas to create a neat summation of Colonial intent, comment on environmental conservation through the island’s shifts from Utopian paradise, to Dystopic nightmare, and arguably of patriarchal dominance also ‘ symbolised here through Napoleon’s telescope, a phallic construction utilised primarily as his access-point to the island and secondarily as his power-stronghold over Crab, Bunny and Bear.
If that sounds unlikely fare for the double-folds of a picture book, look at the story, think about its themes, subtleties and nuances and decide for yourself. Through empowering the use of picture-books regardless of age, ability or background, we are opening the door to infinite interpretations of visual and textual narrative strands, we are allowing readers to invest their own experiences, rationale and world-views, we are creating a base for infinite interpretation and discussion and are thereby realising just what makes reading such a singular recreational activity!
Needless to say Adria Meserve has crafted a story that motivates, inspires and truly does show the ‘dog’ in the dogmatist!