Monthly Archives: February 2015

Nightbird

Alice Hoffman

Simon & Schuster

9781471124211

March 2015

paperback

There was a period when books such as this – books by the likes of Joan Bauer and Sharon Creech for example – were more plentiful than they are today. Which possibly explains why I savoured this short, compact and so perfectly and beautifully written novel as if I were eating a cake or a sweet that reminded me of a time when such deliciousness was more commonplace. Set in the Massachusetts countryside around Boston, it is a contemporary novel not a historical one, but is written in such a way that should Nathaniel Hawthorne unexpectedly time-travel into our own era, this is a book he might comfortably be able to read without too much disorientation.

Hoffman handles the atmosphere and mystery with great skill and conjures up the rural, smalltown Sidwell (a place known for its pink apples) with both cinematic, picturesqueness and legend-like magic realism.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough, for readers aged 10 and over.

It is going to become our new “What are we telling everyone they should read?” title.

Learning With Nature

Marina Robb, Victoria Mew & Anna Richardson

Green Books

9780857842398

January 2015

paperback

I attended the public launch of this title a week ago, and since then have been able to have a leisurely look through the book. What an impressive collaboration between writers and the publisher’s design team this is! “A unique must-have resource for families, schools, youth grouops and anyone working with children,” the back cover proclaims – and yes, it is! I commend it without reservation.

I hope particularly as many schools as possible will obtain copies for their staff libraries. Although many of the recommended activities included in the book, together with the accompanying photos, suggest the need for a forest or woodland context, there are also numerous suggestions that would work just as well within the boundaries of schools that enjoy at least a little bit of green space. It is also undeniably the case that many of the children who are fortunate enough to be taken to the kinds of workshop organised by the book’s authors are from backgrounds that are already sympathetic towards outdoor learning. The book can have most impact if its ideas are taken up in classrooms up and down the country.

One of the speakers at the launch event remembered attending a local primary school in the 1960s. Every Wednesday afternoon the class would be taken up onto the Downs for nature study. The teacher would sit down with a packet of Weights cigarettes, while the class was given freedom to identify wild flowers and plants using Ladybird field guides. A bygone era indeed. The loss of such experiences from the school curriculum (how many infant classrooms even have a Nature table any more?) would not matter so much if children were still doing more of the same in their own time. But they’re not.

The book carries an impassioned foreword by Chris Packham, who notes, alongside a sharp decline in the numbers of kestrels, skylarks and lapwings, another “tragic extinction”:

… that of the young naturalist. I walk my dogs twice daily through the woods near where I grew up, and in years I have not seen a single child making camps, climbing trees, damming streams, let alone looking for birds’ nests, catching grass snakes or tracking foxes. Not one; they have gone.

Well, not gone exactly. They have been iomprisoned, protected from the dirty and dangerous outdoors by being locked up inside in front of televisions and computers.

Each of the three authors has been actively and successfully involved in running outdoor workshops for children over several years. They don’t pretend to have thought up all the activities themselves. This is a compilation of tried and tested activities guaranteed to engage and enthuse.

The book has four main sections – with easy to navigate coloured page tabs:
GAMES
NATURALIST ACTIVITES
SEASONAL ACTIVITIES
SURVIVAL SKILLS

The book is generously illustrated with photographs that have all been scrupulopusly credited to no fewer than thirty separate photographers.

The book has an excellent index, an Afterword from Jon Cree, Chair of the Forest School Association, and author biographies.

Marina Robb is founder and managing director of the outdoor learning association Circle of Life Rediscovery; Anna Richardson is a forest school facilitator and trainer; and Victoria Mew, also a qualified forest school practitioner, has a particular interest in animal tracking.

I very much hope it comes to the attention of the judges of the SLA Information Book Award.

The Art Of Being Normal

Lisa Williamson

David Fickling Books

9781910200322

January 2015

hardback

The trouble, when there is a lot of pre-publication excitement surrounding a novel, particularly an issue-driven YA/crossover novel such as The Art Of Being Normal, is that the actual reading can leave you wondering quite what all the fuss is about.

For a long period in the middle third of this dual-narrative story I felt that this was going to be my abiding impression. But the book certainly gathers power towards the end – sufficiently so for me to at least see why there has been such support for the book.

The cover (by Alice Todd) is quite brilliant. It tells us at once that this is the story about a girl struggling to liberate herself from having been born in a masculine body. In that sense we are primed to see David as the main character of the book and the focal point for the transgender theme.

It is initially a surprise therefore when Leo, the other narrator and a new arrival at the school, receives equal if not more favourable narrative attention. Eventually a significant twist is revealed which explains this equal weighting, but not before the tenor of the novel has become well-nigh indistinguishable from any YA book about secondary school life in which a loner is bullied for being different, and wild rumours are spread concerning a new student.

Williamson’s writing was rather too flat and even-toned to engage me emotionally, but I have to accept that other readers have been emotionally engaged by the characters in ways that I was not. Even in the comparatively powerful climax to the book her writing is very reliant on heavy hints from dialogue to convey the tenor of a situation. “I feel like I’m in an incredibly low-rent music video,” one character says, as a way of telling the reader how to receive the scene. Elsewhere, and again in this best section of the book, the narrating character tells us twice that the scene is “surreal’. Great writing conveys these ambiences without them having to be spelt out in this way.

Readers of my reviews will know that I always tend to have a problem with dual narrative novels. I find my engagement is split and dissipated. David’s family and home life are more successfully rendered than Leo’s. There is a class and background distinction between the families which is signalled with broadbrush cliches: Leo’s mum goes to Bingo and keeps housekeeping money in a tin.

As for the transgender theme and predicament, everything pans out quite wonderfully in the end. In fact, if the book is ever made into a film I would wager that the screenwriter will need to wheedle in a good amount of edginess to counter the sugary-sweet tone of the Christmastime climax.

A YA Transparent, the quite brilliant black-humoured TV film created by Jill Solloway, this is not.