Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

Daniel Hahn



March 2015


Of all the books I own I think my reference books are the ones that bring me most continuous pleasure. They are not necessarily the most loved, and certainly not the most life-changing, but they come down from the shelf most frequently, partly because they are so desirably dippable. The majority of them are the work of numerous contributors (I have contributed to a fair few myself) but the ones that are the most satisfying are those that have been mainly compiled or driven by one person’s opinion – books by the likes of John Sutherland or Martin Seymour-Smith, whose immense and magnificent Macmillan Guide to Modern World Literature is famously outspoken, and correspondingly entertaining. A random example: in ending his entry for Margaret Drabble, Seymour-Smith writes, “It is a pity that in an age when good journalists are almost non-existent, this clever author should have chosen fiction. It is a greater pity that she should have been taken so seriously.”
This new edition of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature is never as rude as Seymour-Smith dared to be, but it nevertheless carries the imprint of its new compiler, Daniel Hahn, who has reworked the original (written by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Pritchard and published over thirty years ago in 1984) to produce a thoroughly updated, judicious and finely curated overview of children’s literature. It is a book that will have pride of place on those reference shelves of mine, and be strategically shelved so that it is always in arm’s reach.
The task that Hahn undertook should not be underestimated. How much of the original book to retain? How much of what was retained needed rewording, or could be used verbatim? What to omit? Which new names to include? Of those names that would ideally be represented in the book should space and length not have been an issue, which names were to be cast to one side?
Of course everyone flipping through this book checking to see which of the authors they admire are included and which not will find that occasionally Hahn’s decisions do not accord with their own. I have to say this has happened very rarely in my case. I was delighted to see Ursula Dubosarsky’s entry. The one absent name that I would have been electioneering in favour of has to be Gaye Hicyilmaz. Watching The Watcher, Against The Storm, The Frozen Waterfall – these and others by her are as good as anything written in our period. It is not a surprising omission, but a regrettable one, as this fine author is truly deserving of a lasting readership.
There – I’ve got that out of my system.
But, as I say, in very large part Hahn’s judgements about the length and tone of entries seem to me to be spot on. Authors such as Charlie Higson, Darren Shan, Robert Muchamore and Anthony Horowitz have their popularity and easy readability acknowledged without unnecessary lengthy endorsement.
Reading the book alongside the original edition, it has been fascinating to see those judgements at work. The first new addition, alphabetically, is Douglas Adams; the second John Agard. Which reminds me, I will need to immerse myself in the book more deeply, but my impression is that, on the whole and Agard notwithstanding, children’s poetry is not quite so generously treated as children’s fiction. The same could possibly be said of children’s illustrators. Anthony Browne’s entry is much shorter than that of several writers of lesser stature or significance.
Inevitably, some of the longer entries in the original edition have needed condensing. But I applaud Hahn’s decision to retain both the length and tone of the entry for William Mayne. Hahn has very slightly reworked the wording of the original and then added this at the end: “Near the end of his life Mayne served a prison sentence for sexual abuse of a number of young girls, which led to his work being dropped from many reading lists and pulled from many library shelves. His books remain, however, among the most accomplished writing for children in recent decades, though their challenges mean that they are sometimes more acclaimed critically than widely read by child readers.”
The book is as up-to-date as any printed reference book can possibly be, with entries for The Hunger Games, The Wimpy Kid and John Green.
The original edition had a quaint listing for ‘Adolescent fiction’, with a pointer to an entry for Teenage Novels. In the new edition, ‘Adolescent fiction’ has been quite rightly dropped as a term, and now ‘Teenage Novels’ points to an entry for Young Adult. Hahn’s largely completely new entry here is one of the best things in the book.
I was pleased to find Hahn is as enthusiastic an admirer of Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver as I am myself. This author’s entry taught me a new term. Apparently much of what Sedgwick writes can be described as ‘goth-froth’ – I would have appreciated a separate entry giving a definition of this genre (said with a smile in my eye).
Anyone who follows Hahn on social media will be in awe of his ability to carry off a work of this scope and stature whilst, apparently, never being in one place for more than a few days at a time.
A tremendous achievement and a very worthy successor to the original. You should buy a copy.

The Dolls

Kiki Sullivan



March 2015


Yes, well it’s hard to take a book seriously that chooses to name its Gothic, southernswamp voodoo world after a French supermarket chain, Carrefour – yes, really! It’s perfectly possible that Sullivan, as an American, was unaware of the unfortunate naming assosciation, but surely someone in her editorial team should have pointed it out, and advised on a replacement. They ought, also, to have advised against such silliness as using the spelling ‘sosyete’ for society, for no apparent reason.
It’s a shame, because I was enticed by the Note from the author at the start of the book to think I might be in for a real treat.
“I wanted to create a world that swirled with magic, but I felt strongly the magic should feel tangible and possible…. I wanted the book to remain true to the enigmatic, colourful spirit of Louisiana..”
Sadly the magic, referred to here as ‘zandara’, is all made-up-word mumbo-jumbo nonsense. “Mesi, zanset. Mesi, zanset. Mesi, zanset.”
When it’s working well, all too briefly though, the book is a mixture of the TV series True Blood and a Tim Burton movie. In fact, the whole concept behind the book is much better suited to film scripting than to novel writing. The Dolls of the title – exclusive, high-fashion conscious babes – never really register as real characters. The main character and first-person narrator, Eveny Cheval, does and this is just enough to hold reader attention.
Whether it will be sufficient to carry a readership through to subsequent titles in the proposed series is another matter.
The current viewing figures for The Dolls theme tune are not encouraging.

Spotlight On Sunny

Keris Stainton



March 2015


You’d be right if you thought this wasn’t going to be quite my cup of tea. But, hey, I find it amusing to read pink-jacketed teen fiction when travelling, and this was pleasingly slim enough to fit in an already full camera bag. Also, since this author has quite a reputation and a following, I thought it high time I read one of her books.
Early on I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. In fact, I feared I might hate it and have to give it a bad review. It seemed to be trying so hard to cover all types of diversity (illness, disability, race, religion…) and I was quite fearful for the direction the reader seemed to be being taken with regard to one of the characters.
But this is actually rather a clever little book. Light but not frothy. Non-judgemental and managing a depth of emotional resonance that is unusual in books of this type.
Three fourteen-year-old girls come down to London to attend a two-week summer film-making course. It’s a neat device for placing such young teens away from family ties in the middle of a capital city. (London’s landmarks feature prominently in the book.) These are girls who have previously appeared in Starring Kitty, the first in a ‘Reel Friends Series’. The London course was a prize in a film-making competition the girls collaborated on in the first book. Presumably, book number three in the series will be all about Hannah, the third girl.
Sunny is an observant Moslem. She prays regularly and her head is always covered with the hijab.
The three girls find that they are having to share their room with a fourth, slightly older girl, Danielle.
Danielle is presented very negatively. She is cast as a selfish sloven, and Sunny is particularly critical of the way she dresses.
One of the boys on the course suffers from Hypermobility Syndrome and Sunny and Danielle find themselves in conflict for his attentions.
The book’s style is highly readable. I liked the way it was written in the third person, but from the central character’s rather than an omniscient narrator’s perspective. I wish more books would eschew the pervasive first person continuous present for this more classical voice. It is clearly popular.
Is it a true teen/YA novel, whatever that may be? Not according to my definition.
I’m not suggesting this distinction particularly matters, but I fancy the readership level of a book such as this is more 10-14, than 12+. Once readers have passed the age of the participants, one would hope that they have already grown up sufficiently to not require the lesson in putting yourself in another’s shoes that the plot so gently but firmly delivers, with the reader, as well, as the girls, eventually seeing Danielle in a new light.