Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: April 2009 (page 1 of 4)

The Childrens’ Laureate’s choices

There was much on the news and in the papers about the Childrens’ Laureate’s choices of best children’s books to celebrate 10 years of having the post – Long may it continue. The five Laureates, past and present, each chose about twelve books which were whittled down to seven. In the media, much is being made of the fact that just five of the thirty-five in total were published during the past twenty years. You can explore the full choices here.

The list is dominated by classics – E. E. Nesbit comes top with two entries, but there’s also Treasure Island, Ballet Shoes, A Little Princess, Emil and the Detectives amongst them, and yes – Enid Blyton appears too with one of the Famous Five books, but there’s no place for Harry Potter.

Jacqueline Wilson’s top seven in particular are a microcosm of everything I devoured as a kid, and that set me thinking about which books I would pick as my personal favourite children’s titles. Having just read a large number of mainly older children’s books for the Easter holidays, it seems like a fun exercise. My choices now are coloured by being a Mum and had to include my new favourites from reading with my daughter:

  • Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr – A creepy story of a girl’s drawings that come to life as she sleeps. I love this book and re-read it endlessly when I was a
    bout eight.
  • Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild- I’m with Jacqueline Wilson here. Another that I read repeatedly as a child.
  • Where the wild things are by Maurice Sendak – My daughter and I loved reading this one together. I adored the quirky and poetic text, she loved the monsters. It feels very contemporary but was actually published in 1967 – which perhaps explains its quirkiness!
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – the first proper book I remember reading, and getting more out of each time.
  • The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis. This was always my favourite of the Narnia books with Puddleglum the pessimist giving  ome comic relief. It’s also chock full of Christian allegory, but that went straight over my head as a kid (still does mostly).
  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler – An absolute modern classic for toddlers, written in rhyme with a mini-climax at

    the end of each page and I think I can still recite the whole tale word for word.
  • The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. This is the book that I enjoyed the most out of my recent reading – set during the early days of the French Revolution, and an absolutely rollicking adventure with a bit of everything! You can read my full review here.

I think when making lists of this kind, you inevitably draw from books that influenced you most as a child. Having an eight year old daughter and hence much recent reading of books for very young children, and a love of reading older children/ya books for myself, allowed me a bit more breadth to choose from. Without the Gruffalo and Sendak, The Railway Children and The Secret Garden would have been in there.

But don’t let lists that are light on recent titles fool you – there is plenty of absolutely top-class writing for children out there, and I intend to keep on finding and reading it.

The way of the Warrior

Across the Nightingale Floor (Tales of the Otori) by Lian Hearn

This is the first novel of a series set in an imaginary world based on feudal Japan and the chivalric Bushido code of conduct. It successfully takes you into that world of honor and loyalty, mastery of martial arts, married with simple living and appreciation of nature and art. Well – that’s how the good guys aim to act – but at heart remember they are all warriors.

The three nations that make up this land are at war and Lord Iida wants it all. He lives in fear of being assassinated though, the nightingale floor of his palace sings – no assassin could cross it without being heard. So he schemes and plans on how to trap the Otori clan into alliance, using the kidnapped daughter of another subdued Lord as bait. Iida is also systematically trying to wipe out the Hidden, a pseudo-Christian sect that live in secrecy. At the start of the novel young Tomasu is the only survivor of a massacre of Hidden and is rescued by Lord Otori Shigeru before Iida can kill him too. Shigeru recognises something in the boy and decides to adopt him, and thus begins a life of adventure, romance and very hard work for the boy, rechristened Takeo. Unbeknown to him though, another secret sect known as The Tribe, a sort of ninja assassin guild, also seek need him for their plans.

Hearn has produced a remarkably well realised world. Shigeru, in particular is a potent force for good, he was my favourite character by far. Takeo, whose life and career will develop in the subsequent volumes in this series, starts off as an empty shell, to be formed, like Kung-Fu‘s Grasshopper, into the warrior and more that is inside him. We are also introduced to young Lady Kaede, the hostage who is to be married to Shigeru, but predictably falls for Takeo. All are well fleshed out characters. Iida and his henchmen though are rather stereotypical baddies and sketchily drawn.

The novel is full of action, but takes its time. In between these scenes, there is much philosophy, talk of politics, and some time for romance too. Takeo, our grasshopper, has to learn many new skills and go on a voyage of self-discovery that leaves you at the end desperate for more. Volumes two and three immediately go onto my wish list – Highly recommended for 12+. (9/10)

That Latin motto – update …

Last month, I came up with a personal motto for the blog:-

Never leave home without a book

But mottoes are so much better in Latin. I loved Latin at school, but last studied it in 1976 and that was the Cambridge Latin course which worked by osmosis rather than grammar drill. So I got out a text book and set about trying to work it out – you can read about my first efforts here, (sorry can’t get link to work, original post was March 31).

I got as far as ‘Egredite domo nunquam sine liber’ – but I knew, or rather suspected, it wasn’t quite right.

I am now indebted to Dr Stephen Ridd, classics teacher at Abingdon School for correcting my schoolgirl Latin. I collared him this morning when he visited us and he sorted it out for me – I was on the right track wordwise, but grammatically I had some problems! Apparently when you are instructing someone not to do something, you have to approach it in a roundabout manner, telling them to be unwilling to do that thing.

So thanks to Stephen, the final motto, in the right Latin order translated into English, essentially reads: Be unwilling home to leave, unless a book you have. That’s very Yoda-ish – It’s much better in Latin …

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes

 

Superstition and fear – Your worst enemies in Puritan times…

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Right at the beginning of this remarkable novel, Mary’s grandmother is tortured, tried and dies for being branded a ‘witch’. Rees lets you know exactly what was in store for the poor women who as healers, herbalists and midwives, were routinely denounced as witches when something went wrong in the superstitious Puritan times.

Mary is helped to escape a similar fate by joining a bunch of settlers going to America. She slots into a group with an Apothecary, Jonah and his son, and Martha, a widow who herself has some skills as a midwife. Mary is unused to being confined on the ship although her writing skills, (unusual for a woman at that time) are in demand. When the settlers reach the New World, she is happy to travel on with the others to the settlement which the previous shipload of this congregation had established. This is when she meets her first native American, Jaybird and his father guide them, and she is intrigued. Once they have roofs over their heads, she starts to venture into the forest, helping Jonah to research for medicinal plants, but also often meeting Jaybird. But tongues start wagging, and Mary finds herself again the centre of speculation over her wayward ways …

The novel is written as diary entries ‘The Mary Papers’ that had been found sewn into a quilt. It shows us what a hard life it was to be an woman with unusual skills in those days; living in a society in which the fear of God was omnipresent, through the ministrations of the Puritan clergy. The settlers life was not easy either, that first year of building, battling the long snowy winter and taming the land to get crops in was particularly hard and many died.

I found this novel richly evocative, it seems very real. It is shocking to encounter the bigotry of the Puritan leaders – their small-town thinking and belief that they are “God’s chosen people, just like the Israelites”. No wonder it bred the paranoia of the witch-hunts, along with an total disregard for the Native American Indians. This novel was spell-binding (!) from start to finish, as good an adult read as for teens. (10/10)

The edition I read also has an interesting reading group guide in the back, and indeed I think this book would be an excellent choice for groups. Further reading suggestions include another novel for teens on a similar theme The Merrybegotby Julie Hearn which I shall have to search out, plus of course The Crucible by Arthur Miller – I know I have the DVD somewhere …

There are faeries everywhere – but not all can see them …

The Thirteen Treasures by Michelle Harrison

The debut novel from this young author is full of proper faeries, the kind with an ‘e’ from British folklore. They’re there right from the beginning, when Tanya’s faery tormentors decide how to make her day – not! For fourteen year old Tanya has second sight – she can see faeries, and knows the mischief they usually cause, and how they make her life very difficult indeed. So much so, that she’s packed off to stay with her grandmother so her unsuspecting mother can get a rest.

Her grandmother lives in a crumbling old mansion with stern groundsman/housekeeper Warwick, his odd son Fabian and his father Amos who is aged and mad. The mansion is full of locked rooms and is rumoured to have secret passages throughout, it is also full of mostly maelevolent faeries who block up the drains, switch sugar for salt and the like. Then at the bottom of the garden are Hangman’s Woods where a fourteen year old girl went missing fifty years ago…

So much happens in this novel, and I don’t want to give the plot away. I read it in one sitting carried along with the adventures of Tanya and Fabian as they explore the house and investigate the old mystery. I did like the folkloric faeries – the tales of the faery courts and changelings; encounters with goblins, brownies and more built into the plot. I would have liked to slow down occasionally so I could enjoy them more, but there were so many elements to get through to reach the end.

Parts did remind me strongly of the Spiderwick Chronicles, (I’ve only seen the film of that though), but if you’ve seen or read that, you would enjoy this novel for 10+yrs. It was fun and easy to read, if a little self-conscious at the beginning, but once the action picked up there was no time for such analysis – you had to stay with Tanya and the little critters to see what would happen next. (7/10)

There are faeries everywhere – but not all can see them …

The Thirteen Treasures by Michelle Harrison

The debut novel from this young author is full of proper faeries, the kind with an ‘e’ from British folklore. They’re there right from the beginning, when Tanya’s faery tormentors decide how to make her day – not! For fourteen year old Tanya has second sight – she can see faeries, and knows the mischief they usually cause, and how they make her life very difficult indeed. So much so, that she’s packed off to stay with her grandmother so her unsuspecting mother can get a rest.

Her grandmother lives in a crumbling old mansion with stern groundsman/housekeeper Warwick, his odd son Fabian and his father Amos who is aged and mad. The mansion is full of locked rooms and is rumoured to have secret passages throughout, it is also full of mostly maelevolent faeries who block up the drains, switch sugar for salt and the like. Then at the bottom of the garden are Hangman’s Woods where a fourteen year old girl went missing fifty years ago…

So much happens in this novel, and I don’t want to give the plot away. I read it in one sitting carried along with the adventures of Tanya and Fabian as they explore the house and investigate the old mystery. I did like the folkloric faeries – the tales of the faery courts and changelings; encounters with goblins, brownies and more built into the plot. I would have liked to slow down occasionally so I could enjoy them more, but there were so many elements to get through to reach the end.

Parts did remind me strongly of the Spiderwick Chronicles, (I’ve only seen the film of that though), but if you’ve seen or read that, you would enjoy this novel for 10+yrs. It was fun and easy to read, if a little self-conscious at the beginning, but once the action picked up there was no time for such analysis – you had to stay with Tanya and the little critters to see what would happen next. (7/10)

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