Sunday, 5 April 2020

Nostalgia during the Pandemic......Adèle Geras

Everyone has been saying it in every single medium. In the newspapers, on television, on the radio (to which I listen all day long and always have) and on the social media. Above all on there....Twitter is awash with people saying it, and I've said it before myself. These are strange times. The Pandemic, Covid-19, Corona, whatever you're calling it, has changed life for every single one of us in extraordinary ways we had never imagined.  

One of the things that's changed is: for once, I haven't had any recent children's books to review. No one has sent me any. In normal times, I might have requested one from a friendly publisher but frankly, this time, I haven't got the mental space to take on new stuff. My head is full of a) the news b) thoughts about my family and friends c) thoughts about my next novel, which I hope to have done some fairly solid work on by the time I come out of self-isolation. 

But I wouldn't want to leave a blank space where a review should be, so I went to the little box where I keep the best and most beloved books that I used to read to my daughters. I chose three.

The first is called A Peaceable Kingdom and it's by Alice and Martin Provensen. It is long out of print and it's an Abecedarius which combines mythical and real animals. It's a Shaker alphabet, so the austerity and wonderfully understated colours of the Shaker aesthetic run through the book, which is completely enchanting. 

I've chosen the N page because it shows the lovely row of houses in the background and the birds combined with Cuttlefish and Spider make a really unusual combination. This yoking together  of the animals and birds and insects is striking. The A page reads: Alligator, Beetle, Porcupine, Whale..... don't ask why. Just because and because they make a wonderful spread.

Anyone with brilliant eyesight might be able to make out other strange combinations below. I apologise for the quality of all these photographs!

The date in the front of the book is 1974. My daughter Sophie was 3 at the time and it's a Christmas present for her. She loved it and I loved reading it to her.

The date in the front of this book is 1978. Jenny, to whom this book was given, was only one year old when we bought it, but the heroine is called Jenny, I had to have it. I guess it was a couple of years before we actually read it to her but Sophie liked it too...when Jenny was born, Sophie was very nearly 6, going on 45. Maurice Sendak is the towering genius of children's book illustration in my opinion and this very small format book has a dolls' house in it, where the inhabitants come to life and invite Jenny could anyone resist?

Finally, there's the best book I know for teaching small children to read. Arnold Lobel's Mouse Tales. He is better known for the Frog and Toad series which  is still in print and still a great favourite. But to me, Mouse Tales is his masterpiece. I wish I had a fiver for every time I read this aloud. The story below tells of a mouse who goes to visit his granny. It's a very long way to her house and in the course of the journey, he changes his footwear several times. In the end, he comes across someone who's selling feet. He buys a new pair and when he gets to his granny's house, she admires his new feet. 
"What fine new feet you have!" she says and that always made us roar with laughter. 

Reading these books again, at a time when their first owners are having Skype suppers with me very often, and living with their children in close proximity, made me feel very nostalgic  for a time when these women were very young.  I'm looking forward to seeing them again in the flesh in due course.....meanwhile, these lovely books make me feel happy. I'm sure every family in the land has such treasures on their shelves, to be taken out at a time when everyone needs a bit of TLC. 


Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Charles Keeping: Londoner and Illustrator – text by Geoffrey Beare, images courtesy of the estate of the late Charles Keeping - review by Lynda Waterhouse

For once I was organised and made my first visit to the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner on 29th February to see the Charles Keeping: Londoner and Illustrator exhibition. I am a huge admirer of Charles Keeping’s work and was surprised to learn that this was the first solo exhibition particularly when you consider he illustrated over a hundred books and won both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals.  
In hindsight it was a good move as in the light of Covid-19 as the Heath Robinson museum is now closed. So I am reviewing the exhibition catalogue. It costs £4.95 and contains thirty of Keeping’s illustrations as well as an informative text by Geoffrey Beare so is the next best thing to seeing the exhibition. The money will also support the museum.
Charles Keeping (1924-1988) was born in Lambeth and his childhood home overlooked Vauxhall market and the Schweppes bottling yard which had cart horses.
‘When it comes to my own actual work, later in life, I tend to keep within what I could see as a child. That was mainly a small garden, a fence, and a large blank wall. Against that blank wall many things took place. It was a yard which had cart horses, and I could see the vast shapes of horses moving across this wall. These very simple images attracted me.’
After the deaths of his father and his grandfather in 1934 he was mainly brought up by his grannie, mother and aunts. He left school at thirteen and went to work for Clowes the printers. During the war he worked as a telegrapher on a frigate before, after several attempts, making it into Art College. His first children’s book illustrations were for the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Henry Treece. His approach with double page spreads and fighting across pages was seen as radical at the time. 
In a discussion in 1970 Keeping had said,

‘Many people believe that an illustration should illustrate the story. This is something I don’t really believe. I’m sick to death of the illustration that just shows an incident. It bores one doing it. I would sooner make a drawing that has an evocative mood…It’s like two jazz musicians playing together – one plays piano, the other alto sax, or one drums and another trumpet. You play as a combination.’
I thoroughly recommend a visit to this small museum and its permanent exhibition about Heath Robinson. How could you not love a place that describes itself thus?
‘The Heath Robinson Museum is for students of illustration, lovers of landscape paintings, advertising enthusiasts and academics, dads building contraptions in sheds, believers in fairies, children with time to dream, couples stuck in tiny flats, people who put holes in cheese, artificial teeth testers and anyone who’s ever held something together with a bit of string.’
You can see also Charles’ and his wife Renate’s work at the Keeping Gallery at Shortlands in Kent. Contact
Heath Robinson Museum, Pinner Memorial Park, West End Lane, Pinner HA5 1AE,


Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Dear Earth by Isabel Otter and Clara Anganuzzi, reviewed by Dawn Finch

First the blurb...
When Tessa writes a love letter to the Earth, it's the beginning of a glorious adventure. She blows bubbles with whales, soars with birds and joins in with the noisy rainforest hullabaloo! 
Tessa wants everyone to know how special our planet is. She believes that there is a chance to save the Earth if enough of us share the message.

There are a lot of books about the environment, and global issues like climate change and pollution. Some of good, but many are rather dreary and preachy and many still somehow fail to hit the mark. Dear Earth is a perfect example of how it can be done well.

Tessa and her Grandpa love to go walking together, and as they walk he tells her the most
Copyright Isabel Otter, Clara Anganuzzi and Little Tiger UK
amazing stories of his travels. He talks of when he was younger and was an adventurer and sailed the seas and explored the Earth. Tessa is captivated and dreams of her own adventures and decides to write a letter to the Earth to describe her dreams and what she will one day see on her own explorations.... if the Earth is safe long enough for her to grow up.

This elegantly simple (and never preachy) text from author Isabel Otter is charming and will make a lovely story to share and read aloud. The words are accompanied (and made magical) but the most extraordinarily beautiful illustrations from Clara Anganuzzi. Wonderful images of the creatures of the oceans and the air, the forests and the mountains, all the habitats of the Earth. The layout of the book is particularly lovely too as the reader turns the book around and about to achieve depth, and height while Tessa swims and soars with them. 

Copyright Isabel Otter, Clara Anganuzzi and Little Tiger UK
This book is one that you could comfortably give as a gift, or keep for yourself, and it will make a superb addition to the classroom bookshelf. It is a book about a difficult subject, but it feels uplifting and hopeful. It is a joyful book and definitely one that will be read again and again.

Dear Earth by Isabel Otter and Clara Anganuzzi is published by Caterpillar Books (an imprint of Little Tiger UK)
ISBN - 9781848579415

Dawn Finch is a children's author and librarian and current chair of the Children's Writer's and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG)


Friday, 20 March 2020

THE HOUSE IN NORHAM GARDENS by Penelope Lively Reviewed by Ann Turnbull


   I love Penelope Lively's books, and this one is a particular favourite. First published in the 1970s, it's a compelling story with a subtle undercurrent of magic.

   The story is set in a big old house in Oxford during a week or so of snow. In the house live fourteen-year-old Clare Mayfield and her two aunts, Anne and Susan, aged seventy-eight and eighty. The aunts, though loving and erudite, are not capable of running a home, and the household finances are managed by Clare and Mrs Hedges, the domestic help. Unlike the aunts, these two are aware of the shortage of money and unpaid bills, and have found a lodger, Maureen.

   Away from such grown-up concerns, Clare spends time in the attic, unearthing old clothes and other reminders of her ancestors. She notices a strange and unsettling object: a tamburan - a kind of shield with an image painted on it that suggests a face. She begins to have dreams in which she meets tribal people who seem to be missing the tamburan and want it back. These dreams become increasingly urgent and frightening.

   Clare, at fourteen, is on the cusp of adult life. Although the action takes place only over a week or so, for her it's a time of growth and change. The snow persists throughout the story, an enclosing and  confining presence that keeps Clare focused on her disturbing dreams. She visits the Pitt Rivers museum, where she sees another tamburan similar to the one in the attic, and meets Nigerian student John Sempebwa. John helps her in her search for answers and also becomes a second lodger at the aunts' house.

   This is not an eventful story. It's about relationships, growing up, and contacts between people across both space and time. There is a subtle undercurrent of magic. Clare is in the limbo of  adolescence, waiting for her adult life to begin, while the tribal people are losing their ancestral links and also moving towards a new life. In the short time span of this story, deep changes and understandings take place. 


Sunday, 15 March 2020

Little Baby's Playtime, by Nick Sharratt and Sally Symes, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This is a book of simple genius. A sturdy, square, little board book, it has two holes that allow you to poke fingers through to make a pair of wiggly baby legs.
Each spread shows a different baby, sitting in a high chair, going down a slide, and more, each picture brought to giggly delightful life by those finger legs.
Sally Symes' text is a simple, pleasing rhyme with a refrain that babies can join in with. We have 'One little baby riding in a sling', then 'One little baby on a playground swing', with a 'wiggle waggle' to accompany each.
A blissful book to share with babies ... and there's another book, a 'busy day' version, coming out soon.
Highly recommended.


Wednesday, 11 March 2020

HOPE AGAINST HOPE by Sheena Wilkinson. Review by Penny Dolan

This novel, HOPE AGAINST HOPE, is the third in a trilogy of YA historical novels by Sheena Wilkinson, an award-winning author and writing teacher who lives in County Down, Northern Ireland and who writes with a real sense of place.

NAME UPON NAME, her first historical novel, was set in 1916, during the Easter Rising with STAR UPON STAR, her second book, set during the General Election of 1918, when the women of Ireland could vote for the first time.

HOPE BY HOPE, published this month, is set in Belfast during 1921: the year when the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland was established.

59 books to watch out for in 2020 – all from independent ...

Bright, impulsive, fifteen-year-old Polly is a girl with a love of reading and learning and a habit of speaking out when it might be better to stay quiet. 

Despite Polly’s spark, her life is not easy. She lives in fictional Mullankeen, a small rural town close to the new border and in what was a once-happier home.

Since Polly’s mother died in the Spanish flu epidemic, her widowed father has turned in on himself, giving all his attention to running his draper's shop. 

Meanwhile, Polly’s brother Leo, who had fought as a now-hated British soldier, disappears into drunken binges and bursts of violence and rage.

Then Polly hears that her cousin Catherine is going to Belfast, to study shorthand and typing at a commercial school and take up lodgings in a girl’s hostel. Polly longs to go too, but her father refuses to consider it, leaving Polly resentful of the limits put on her learning and her life. 
Polly stays on in Mullankeen, skivvying for her brother and father until a vicious incident provokes her into action. Polly runs to Belfast, where she feels overwhelmed by the noise and bustle. At last, Catherine arrives with Sandy, a young man who leads the girls through the troubled streets past lamposts adorned with flags and the shouts of turbulent louts. Polly’s impulsive response soon teaches her that Belfast is a more volatile place than rural Mullankeen.

Polly goes to the Helen’s Hope hostel where she in taken in, as long as she can prove her worth. The large house is a bold venture: a hostel set up for young women even when some believe females should live within their family home until they are married. More than that, the hostel has been established as firmly non-sectarian at a time when religious divisions are being exploited and strengthened.

Everyone who lives in the “Helen’s Hope” community helps to keep the hostel running, whether by working in the house, kitchen or garden, or sewing in the factory building, or by teaching or bringing in money from elsewhere. During the day the girls are busy while in the evenings they are free to entertain themselves within the house.

Despite the desperate situation, I rather felt that Polly’s stay at Hope House had some of the charm of an old-fashioned boarding school story – intense friendships, loyalty to the group, a mix of both admirable and awkward characters, a few misunderstandings and secrets, plus lone strangers, dangerous plots, night-time searches and so on, which all gave Polly's time there a welcome pace and interest.

However, at the same time, Sheena Wilkinson weaves in strong and gritty themes, revealing poverty, suspicion and the darker side of a sectarian city where the shipyards drove out Catholic labourers and poor, homeless girls had few choices.

There is anotherstrand in the storytelling that I particularly enjoyed. As Polly - and the reader - experience both clues and confusions within the story, Polly realises that she, herself, sometimes misunderstands situations and people and may need to set her own life straight again.

At a time when Irish history and the Northern Irish Border seems so relevant to the current political situation, HOPE BY HOPE – and all the books in Sheena Wilkinson’s trilogy – must be valuable additions for secondary school libraries across the UK.

Penny Dolan


Thursday, 5 March 2020

Kids' Travel Journal by Chitra Soundar

As a child, I wrote a lot. And as a teenager I started keeping a diary. But living in a big joint family in a small flat meant privacy was not something I could afford. Keeping the diary safe from the curious eyes of a parent or a grandparent was no easy job. So I carried it around in my school bag and never left it outside.

Since then I keep a journal on and off. I tried to write every day last year and failed for days together. This year, I've resorted to a para every day and I still catch up just once a week.

Last year my sister and her family took time off during the Easter half-term and went to Costa Rica. As this involved taking a few days off school, the school had asked my 7-year old nephew to read and write during the break.

I had an idea. Why not give him a travel journal? I gave him a brand new travel journal he could keep.

The travel journal also prompted him about transport, money and flags, feelings and experience.

My nephew used it every day.  He wrote every day about the animals he had seen, the places they visited, the hikes he took with his dad and little brother. He drew in them and coloured them in.

My nephew returned with additional pages stuck to his journal and I was so proud of him. I never realised that he could retain his interest in writing everyday for 3 weeks. But it did. I was amazed at his creativity and interest and how he had captured little details of his day.

I did review quite a few travel journals before I decided on this one and I'm glad I made the right choice. There was a balance of text vs prompts and space to fill in with pictures. I'll whole-heartedly recommend this for all young people not only to nurture their wonder but also give them an opportunity to remember and reflect on their holidays.