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One From the Archive: ‘Nancy and Plum’ by Betty Macdonald ****

Betty MacDonald’s Nancy and Plum has been republished as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics series, which features such titles as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The novel includes an afterword by former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson, who says that it is her favourite work for younger readers, and charming new illustrations by Catharina Baltas. 9780099583356

Nancy and Plum, which was first published in 1952, begins on Christmas Eve.  MacDonald sets the scene immediately: ‘Big snowflakes fluttered slowly through the air like white feathers and made all of Heavenly Valley smoth and white and quiet and beautiful.  Tall fir trees stood up to their knees in the snow and their outstretched hands were heaped with it.’ The book’s young protagonists are ‘locked up in rotten Mrs Monday’s house, while all the other children have gone home’

Mrs Monday owns the ‘big brick Boarding Home for Children’, in which sisters Nancy and Pamela Remson – the latter who goes by the nickname of Plum – have been placed.  The girls’ parents were killed in a train crash when they were only small, and their guardian, bachelor Uncle John, had no idea what to do with children.  MacDonald exemplifies the differences between the sisters immediately; Nancy is filled with a ‘dreamy gentleness’, and Plum is daring, with a ‘quick humor’.  Her young protagonists have been built so well that they seem to come to life, and one is soon immersed within their tale.  Each child who meets Nancy and Plum is sure to fall in love with them.

The extra material in Vintage’s reprint is thoughtful, and makes a lovely addition to the story.  It includes a biography of American author Betty MacDonald, a quiz, a recipe for Nancy’s dream meal, a glossary of words which may be unfamiliar to younger readers, and a recommended reading list with which to follow the book.  Nancy and Plum is a heartwarming and entertaining novel, which is sure to delight children and parents alike.  It is the perfect choice for a cosy festive read.

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The 1968 Club: ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes *****

I was hoping to be able to read and review something new for the wonderful 1968 reading club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy, but my best intentions have been swallowed up in thesis writing.  I therefore thought that rather than miss out on contributing entirely, I would schedule a review for one of my favourite books, Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which just so happens to have been published in 1968.

indexThe Iron Man tells the story of a ‘man’ made entirely of metal, thought at first to be an enemy of the people.  He is found by a group of local villagers whilst snacking on their farm equipment, and they decide that the best thing to do in such circumstances is to build an enormous pit and lure the Iron Man inside.  This they do.  What they don’t factor into the equation is that the Iron Man is able to escape.  This he does.  A friendship with a young boy named Hogarth ensues, and to prove his worth to the sceptical adults, the Iron Man is tasked with saving the earth from an evil space creature.

This sounds very sci-fi, I know, and my wariness of choosing this as my first Hughes book to read was based purely upon the fact that I don’t overly enjoy science fiction as a genre.  All of my apprehension about it dissipated on the first page however, and I found The Iron Man to be an incredibly enjoyable little novel.  The story is one of the most inventive which I’ve come across in a long while, and I loved the way in which Hughes crafted his tale.  Despite the other-worldly beings, the writing style and descriptions throughout made it appear almost believable.

As a character, I adored the Iron Man.  He was wonderfully invented, and the passage about how his destroyed body rebuilt itself was so beautiful and startling that I read it numerous times.  Hughes’ imagination is a marvellous one, and Andrew Davidson’s monochrome illustrations which accompany the volume are beautiful.  The prose throughout is enchanting and vivid, and is certainly no less fascinating to read as an adult than I imagine it would have been to read as a child.

As a youngster, in fact, I would have been both terrified and utterly enchanted by the brilliant and memorable story and its characters.  There is nothing at all in the novel which I feel could be improved, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.

I feel that I should end on the wonderfully heartwarming message of the book:

“You are who you choose to be.”

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The Book Trail: Lost in the Woods

I am kicking off this Book Trail with one of my favourite books, written for children by one of my favourite lyricists, Colin Meloy of Portland-based band The Decemberists.  The books which follow largely deal with children lost in the woods, or trapped in adult-free lands; a good theme, I feel, for a not-too-obvious Hallowe’en post.

1. Wildwood by Colin Meloy 10431447
‘In Wildwood, Prue and her friend Curtis uncover a secret world in the midst of violent upheaval–a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much greater as the two friends find themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness. A wilderness the locals call Wildwood. Wildwood captivates readers with the wonder and thrill of a secret world within the landscape of a modern city. It feels at once firmly steeped in the classics of children’s literature and completely fresh at the same time. The story is told from multiple points of view, and the book features more than eighty illustrations, including six full-color plates, making this an absolutely gorgeous object.’

 

2. Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver
‘Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice,until one night a ghost appears from the darkness. It is Po, who comes from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are lonely, but together they are less alone.  That same night, an alchemist’s apprentice, Will, bungles an important delivery. He accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with one containing something decidedly less remarkable.  Will’s mistake has tremendous consequences for Liesl and Po, and it draws the three of them together on an extraordinary journey.  From New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver comes a luminous and magnificent novel that glows with rare magic, ghostly wonders, and a true friendship that lights even the darkest of places.’

 

3. Juniper Berry by M.P. Kozlowsky
9869553Juniper’s parents have not been themselves lately. In fact, they have been cold, disinterested and cruel. And lonely Juniper Berry, and her equally beset friend, Giles, are determined to figure out why.   On a cold and rainy night Juniper follows her parents as they sneak out of the house and enter the woods. What she discovers is an underworld filled with contradictions: one that is terrifying and enticing, lorded over by a creature both sinister and seductive, who can sell you all the world’s secrets in a simple red balloon. For the first time, Juniper and Giles have a choice to make. And it will be up to them to confront their own fears in order to save the ones who couldn’t.  M.P. Kozlowsky’s debut novel is a modern-day fairy tale of terror, temptation, and ways in which it is our choices that make us who we are.

 

4. Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
Max ‘the Wolf’ is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat) – all of whom talk – and who are as clueless as Max.  Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world…

 

5. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton 7843500
Ten-year-old Persimmony Smudge leads (much to her chagrin) a very dull life on the Island at the Center of Everything . . . until the night she overhears a life-changing secret. It seems that Mount Majestic, the rising and falling mountain in the center of the island, is not a mountain at all-it’s the belly of a sleeping giant, moving as the giant breathes. Now Persimmony and her new friend Worvil the Worrier have to convince all the island’s other quarreling inhabitants-including the silly Rumblebumps, the impeccably mannered Leafeaters, and the stubborn young king-that a giant is sleeping in their midst, and must not be woken. Enhanced with Brett Helquist’s dazzling illustrations, Jennifer Trafton’s rollicking debut tells the story of one brave girl’s efforts to make an entire island believe the impossible.

 

6. The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell
Twelve-year-old Clara Dooley has spent her whole life in the Glendoveer mansion, where her mother is a servant to the kind and elderly matron of the house. Clara has never known another home. In fact, she’s confined to the grand estate due to a mysterious heart condition. But it’s a comfortable life, and if it weren’t for the creepy squawking birds in the aviary out back, a completely peaceful one too.  But once old Mrs. Glendoveer passes away, Clara comes to learn many dark secrets about the family. The Glendoveers suffered a horrific tragedy: their children were kidnapped, then drowned. And their father George Glendoveer, a famous magician and illusionist, stood accused until his death. As Clara digs deeper and deeper into the terrifying events, the five birds in the aviary seem to be trying to tell her something. And Clara comes to wonder: what is their true identity? Clara sets out to solve a decades-old murder mystery—and in doing so, unlocks a secret in her own life, too. Kathleen O’Dell deftly weaves magic, secret identities, evil villians, unlikely heroes, and the wonder of friendship into a mystery adventure with all the charm of an old fashioned classic.

 

99728787. The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer
Like the other children who have journeyed to the village of Xibalba, Martin Maple faces an awful truth. He was forgotten. When everyone else in the world disappeared one afternoon, these children were the only ones left behind. There’s Darla, who drives a monster truck; Felix, who used string and wood to rebuild the internet; Lane, who crafts elaborate contraptions for live entertainment; and nearly forty others, each equally brilliant and peculiar.   Inspired by the prophecies of a mysterious boy who talks to animals, Martin believes he can reunite them all with their loved ones. But believing and knowing are two different things, as he soon discovers with the push of a button, the flip of a switch, the turn of a dial…  A whimsical apocalyptic fable that carries readers to a future world without adults, a journey filled with dark humor that every reader will want to take.

 

8. Vanished by Sheela Chari
Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument was a gift from her grandmother-intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon.  When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, strange clues surface: a tea kettle ornamented with a familiar pointy-faced dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse. The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela’s instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. Even if Neela does track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?  Sheela Chari’s debut novel is a finely tuned story of coincidence and fate, trust and deceit, music and mystery.

 

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Reading the World: ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve ****

2017 seems a fitting year in which to read The Beauty and the Beast, as Disney released its live action blockbuster just a few months ago.  I did love the cartoon film as a child – my particular fondness, of course, was for the tiny chipped teacup and the glimpse of Belle’s library – but was very underwhelmed by the new interpretation.  Regardless, I had never read Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original story before, and made up my mind to do so, tying it in with this year’s Reading the World Challenge.9780062456212

I’m sure everyone already knows the story of The Beauty and the Beast, but if not, I will offer a short recap.  The tale of a merchant opens the story; once prosperous, he has lost his fortune due to one catastrophe after another.  He moves his sizeable family – six daughters and six sons – to a secluded house which he owns, one hundred miles away.  Of the effects which this has upon the merchant’s largely spoilt and self-obsessed daughters, de Villeneuve writes: ‘They thought that if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion.  They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father’s splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it.  Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them’.  The girls have no choice but to ‘shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.’

The family’s youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Beauty, is the anomaly.  She has so much compassion and empathy for her family, and is a refreshing addition to a brood of rather horrid, vain girls.  She in fact shows strength in the face of the family’s new-found adversity: ‘She bore her lot cheerfully, and with strength of mind much beyond her years’.  When her father has to undertake a long journey in the hope of reclaiming some of his former possessions, her sisters clamour for new dresses and finery.  Beauty simply asks him to bring her back a rose.  Her father is subsequently caught in a snowstorm which disorientates him, and seeks shelter in an enormous, grand castle.  He finds no inhabitant, but regardless, a meal is presented to him in a cosy room.  He – for no explicit reason – decides that, with no sign of an owner about, the castle must now belong to him.

The merchant becomes rather cocksure, and decides to kill two birds with one stone, taking a rose for his beloved younger daughter from the castle’s garden.  It is at this point that he is given his comeuppance, and reprimanded by the Beast, the castle’s owner: ‘He was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s…’.  The Beast pardons him only in exchange for one of his daughters.  When the merchant describes his plight, five of his six daughters are, unsurprisingly, selfish, and believe that he should sacrifice himself for their benefit.  Beauty, however, steps up to the mark, and is taken to the castle to live with the Beast.

The Beauty and the Beast has been so well plotted, and has many elements of the traditional fairytale in its favour.  Despite this, it goes further; its length allows de Villeneuve to really explore what could be termed magical realism.  The vivid dreams which Beauty has are beautifully depicted, and tension is built at times.  I found The Beauty and the Beast just as enjoyable as I would have as a child.  The magic which weaves its way through the novel cannot fail to draw one under its spell; there are talking animals, enchanted mirrors, and things which appear and disappear.  The talking crockery and candelabra are very much Disney additions; the novel reads as a far more fresh, and less gimmicky, version of the story.

I am pleased that I chose to read the unabridged version of de Villeneuve’s story, which was published in its original French in 1740.  This particular edition has been translated and adapted by Rachel Louise Lawrence, who has very much retained a lot of its antiquity.  The sentence structure is quite old-fashioned – charmingly so, in fact.  The writing and translation here are fluid and lovely.  I would urge you, if you’ve not seen the film, to pick up this delightful tome instead.  There is so much substance here, and it should definitely be placed alongside children’s classics such as The Railway Children and Mary Poppins.

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‘Keeping Henry’ by Nina Bawden ***

Keeping Henry by Nina Bawden – an author who is a firm favourite on the Modern Classics list – is one of the first of her books to be reissued by Virago for a younger audience, complete with new illustrations by Alan Marks.  First published in 1988, the Observer calls it ‘a subtle and many-layered story, one of Nina Bawden’s best’.  The aim of the new Virago series for children, which will expand to twenty titles at the end of 2017, is to publish ‘timeless tales with beautiful covers that will be treasured and shared across the generations’.  Other titles upon the list as it currently stands are a charming mixture, ranging from the likes of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful The Secret Garden.

9780349009193Keeping Henry revolves around a young squirrel, who is found by a wartime family who have relocated from London to Wales, after the youngest son Charlie accidentally catapults him out of his nest.  Unable to be released back into the wild, the family keep the squirrel as one of their own, and swiftly name him Henry.  Keeping Henry is, in part, based upon Bawden’s own childhood, as she herself kept an abandoned squirrel as a pet, and was, like the family in the novel, evacuated to rural Wales during the Second World War.  The blurb plays upon this, describing Keeping Henry as a ‘winning combination’ between an evacuee and family story, and an ‘unlikely, mischievous pet’.  Indeed, the family within Keeping Henry were: ‘upturned from their old life just as Henry was “tipped out” of his nest.’

Keeping Henry, which is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed girl, opens in the following manner: ‘My brothers, Charlie and James, have always blamed me for what happened to Henry.  Even now, years and years later, Charlie still says it was my fault.’  Her ‘sharp-eyed’ brother ‘had spotted the nest high in the tree by the brook; who watched for a while, several days, and then fetched his friends, Tommy and Stan, and his big brother’s catapult.  A lucky shot for a little boy only seven years old, though not as lucky, of course, for the squirrels.’  Thankfully, the boys’ mother is accommodating, and does not mind looking after stray or lost creatures: ‘She was mad about animals.  Sometimes I thought that she preferred them to people.  Except for Charlie, of course; her baby, her favourite.’

As one familiar with Bawden’s work may have come to expect, Keeping Henry does include a level of psychological insight about the family, and their circumstances.  Charlie particularly is shown as being troubled by their uprooting to rural Wales: ‘Charlie had heard the bomb fall, and although it was three years now since we had left the city to live on this farm in the country, he still jumped and went pale when a tractor backfired or Mr Jones, the farmer, was out shooting rabbits’.  Whilst such occurrences are not shied away from, there are some wonderful evocations of the countryside within the pages of Keeping Henry.

Children are set to learn information about red squirrels as they read, and will come to care immensely for the animated Henry and his fate.  Bawden’s children’s books add something a little different to the genre; they are sweet but also witty, a little quaint at times but not old-fashioned, and as knowledgeable as they are perceptive.  Bawden characteristically deals with a lot of issues in Keeping Henry, but the main thread here is displacement; the children are away from their home and their father, who is in the Navy, just as Henry has lost his family and his nest.  Marks’ whimsical illustrations are comical and sweet, and fit well with the text.  Keeping Henry is sure to delight both nature-loving and thoughtful children, and to charm adults just as much.

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‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’ by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo ****

I chose to borrow Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women from the library and read it during the BookTubeathon in July.  Its blurb, as well as the librarian whom I spoke to about it, made it sound both inspiring and quirky, and it has also been highly recommended on a couple of blogs and channels which I love.  Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is the ‘most funded original book in the history of crowdfunding’, which was certainly another reason to pick it up, to see whether the hype was justified.

Its authors, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, have collected short biographies of one hundred women, both famous and relatively forgotten, in order to prove ‘the world-changing power of a trusting heart’.  They have used a lot of different illustrators to provide accompanying portraits of each woman, and have arranged the entries in alphabetical order according to their first name.  The inclusions which Favilli and Cavallo have chosen range from mathematician Ada Lovelace and Russian ruler Catherine the Great, to the Bronte sisters, and a host of young activists trying to change the world around them for the better.  There are supermodels, cyclists, scientists, a deaf motocross racer, authors, illustrators, and world leaders; in short, a great cross-section of inspiring women from all walks of life can be found within the pages of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. 9780141986005

Far-reaching and thoughtful, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is an inspiring book, which has been beautifully laid out and put together.  Alongside each biography, which begins in the whimsical manner of ‘Once upon a time…’, biographical dates and pioneering and important things have been included about each entrant, as well as a quote.  Many of the women here have battled great adversity, but all have triumphed.

A lot of the women here are quite obvious inclusions – Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie, for instance – but others are less so.  There are some glaring omissions – no Anne Frank graces its pages, for instance – but of course there have been swathes of incredible women around the world who could have been included, and I understand what a tough job it must have been for Favilli and Cavallo to narrow down their choices to just one hundred.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is, without doubt, a wonderful tome, and is sure to delight and empower girls – and women – around the world.  The only inclusion which I found myself questioning from an ‘inspiring’ perspective is Margaret Thatcher; she would not have even made my longlist.  Regardless, there are women here whom every girl can relate to, and a second volume following similar guidelines would, I am sure, be welcomed with open hearts.

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One From the Archive: ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ by Rudyard Kipling ****

Rudyard Kipling has left a plethora of fantastic writing behind him, ranging from his moralistic Just-So Stories and his beautiful and far-reaching collection of poems, to his delightful work for children.  Each story in Puck of Pook’s Hill – which was first published in 1906, and is possibly the most charming novel which Kipling turned his hand to writing – ‘mixes war and politics with adventure and intrigue’. 9781843915027

The foreword to Hesperus Minor’s beautiful new reprint of Kipling’s classic children’s novel has been written by Marcus Sedgwick.  He explains, first and foremost, that a puck is ‘an ancient creature of British mythology, a catch-all name for the “little people”, the fairy-folk, or the People of the Hills’.

The novel is comprised of short stories which relate to one another in terms of the central thread running through them, and which are separated by rousing poems.  Surely such a format deems them perfect for bedtime reading.  In the novel, we are introduced to siblings Una and Dan, who live in rural Sussex.  On Midsummer’s Eve, whilst they are reciting – rather fittingly, one feels – the beautiful A Midsummer Night’s Dream to one another, using a fairy ring ‘of darkened grass’ as their stage, they manage to summon an elf named Puck, and ‘are taken on a fantastic journey through Britain’s past’.  Kipling describes the little creature in rather a charming and vivid manner: all of a sudden, ‘in the very spot where Dan had stood as Puck they saw a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person with a snub nose, slanting blue eyes, and a grin that ran right across his freckled face’.  Pook’s Hill, upon which the children sit, belong to Puck: ‘it is just that’, Sedgwick writes, ‘as the years go by, words and names change’.

The entirety of Puck of Pook’s Hill is filled with history.  Una and Dan meet, amongst other figures of yore, a Roman Centurion and the knight Sir Richard, who came to England with William the Conqueror.  Both figures tell many tales of their pasts.  In this way, the book is both entertaining and educative, telling the story of Britain’s important past by way of events which are sure to pique the interest of children.  Throughout, Kipling balances the adventurous tales with beautiful descriptions – for example, ‘The trees closing overhead made long tunnels through which the sunshine worked in blobs and patches’, and ‘the little voices of the slipping water began again’.

Puck of Pook’s Hill is of the rare kind of children’s literature, presenting as it does a story which will equally appeal to both boys and girls.  It is filled to the brim with magic, folklore, ancient beings, other-worldly creatures, and two very endearing children.  The charming story which Kipling has woven is ready to be rediscovered by a whole new generation of readers, who are sure to treasure it.

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