What do crime writers read?

On the very last day of this year’s Oxford Lit Fest I was lucky enough to join Robin Stevens and Katherine Woodfine at The Story Museum to talk to our hearts’ content about detective fiction – writing it, and reading it.

We all write historical crime mysteries for children – and for anyone else who likes to read them! Nancy Parker's Diary of Detection by Julia LeeKatherine’s books are set in the rags and riches world of the grandest Victorian department store, Robin’s boarding school murder mysteries are set in the 1930s, and my new series is set in 1920, featuring Nancy Parker, a housemaid-turned-amateur detective.

The classic reads and characters which enthused and inspired us all were remarkably similar…

Our top hero Wilkie Collins is credited with inventing the genre of detective fiction with Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868). His books have nail-biting mysteries and brilliant characterisation. In The Woman In White, the wonderful Marian Halcombe has the terrier-like qualities, essential for the amateur investigator, of loyally searching and refusing to let go. Marian is also a great antidote to the ‘ideal’ heroine of Victorian fiction who was as passive and dependent as she was pretty and blonde.

I have to confess that Clemency’s ghastly great-uncle in my first book, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth, owes  more than a little to Marian’s half-sister’s uncle, Frederick Fairlie. (Yes, complicated – they always are!) Also to the wonderful Ian Richardson who played him in the 1980s TV adaptation.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the prototype of the investigator with almost super-human deductive skills. ‘We’re looking for a man with hare lip whose housekeeper always uses Shiny-Bee Floor wax.’ Ok, I made that up, but it’s just the kind of thing we expect Sherlock to say, and the way he’s morphed into a 21st century detective shows what a hold he has on our imaginations.

Then there’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

I read all the Miss Marple short stories, especially the early ones for 1920s atmosphere, when I was writing Nancy Parker. But my favourite book of Christie’s, Death Comes As The End, is one which many people haven’t heard of. It may be the first example of a historical crime novel. It’s set in the court of the Pharaohs in 2000 BC and has as high a body count as her famous And Then There Were None. Christie’s husband was an archaeologist and her interest in the subject inspired this fascinating whodunnit.

Harriet Vane from Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey books is another great female detective – and a novelist to boot.

As for children’s books which inspired us, Nancy Drew, E. Nesbit’s Bastable children for their problem-solving (in The Treasure Seekers), and even Just William (identified as a loose cannon), never forgetting Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven, and The Famous Five (though really it was tomboy George and Timmy the dog who worked it all out).

Finally a massive vote from me for Golden Age writer of mystery fiction, Josephine Tey, whose books are still eminently readable today.

The Daughter of Time (1951) is an odd hybrid of contemporary and historical investigation: a police inspector, who prides himself on reading innocence or guilt in a suspect’s face, is laid up with a broken leg and bored. Sparked by a portrait of Richard III, he investigates from his hospital bed the story of the murder of the Princes in the Tower, using written sources. This book was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the UK Crime Writers’ Association in 1990. I wonder if it’s the predecessor of all those novels where a modern-day hero/ine uncovers a story through a cache of letters and documents from the past?

My own favourite books of Tey’s are Brat Farrar, a beguiling mystery of identity, The Franchise Affair (rather modern in its portrayal of press manipulation, and full of twists and turns) and Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a girls’ boarding school!

writers Julia Lee, Katherine Woodfine, Robin Stevens, at Oxford Literary Festival 2016,

Katherine Woodfine (left), me and Robin Stevens at The Story Museum, Oxford.

So if you want a classic detective fiction reading list, this is not a bad place to start.

A toddle by the seaside

I’m definitely behind with this project, for all sorts of reasons. The baby is now nearly 7 months old and yet the board book numbers haven’t yet reached halfway through a year! So…

A Board Book Every Week: No. 23

 

Toddle Waddle by Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt

Toddle Waddle by Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt

(Macmillan Children’s Books 2015)

 

Another pairing made in heaven – or in publishers’ heaven – picture book superstars Julia Donaldson’s charming way with rhythm ‘n rhyme and Nick Sharratt’s lovely, lively illustrations.

In Toddle Waddle a waddling toddler takes a walk with a mum in flip-flops – ‘Toddle waddle, flip flop’ – on the way gathering more and more characters all with their own distinctive noise. Until the toddler reaches some railings, where we get ‘Stop!’ (always a useful word to know). Over the page the early uncluttered scenes are replaced beyond the railings with a busy beach and all the fun actions and sounds that go with it: boing boing, splish splash, slurp slurp, and so on.

The next page features a bright red train with mum, toddler and friends aboard which delivers them to the pier and finally the end-of-the-pier show with more wonderful noises. The walk and the day finish with a pier beautifully silhouetted against the night sky and everyone waving bye-bye.

I love this book for all the potential in it. You can stay with the easy sound-making text or talk much more about what is going on. And there is a lot going on to talk about and find, but mostly things that should be familiar to a toddler – ducks, dogs, bikes, balls, horses, frogs, slides, trampolines, drums, and more. But at base it’s a simple story of taking a walk and seeing what’s going on all about you. An added extra for me is the bouncy seaside setting.

Diversity gets a mild look-in – the toddler is not obviously boy or girl so you can choose, there are people of different races including a glamorous black lady saxophonist (though I have to say most characters are white) and a boy on the beach is in a wheelchair (love to know how he got across the sand!)

There’s a sunny colour palette and although some pages are busy it still has a great uncluttered look about it – not too hard to find individual people or animals, even the tiny bee or snail.

Altogether this is a delightful book which should have plenty to interest for a long time.

Toddle Waddle by Julia Donmaldson and Nick Sharratt

Where’s Teddy? Bedtime angst addressed…

A Board Book Every Week: No. 22

No Bed Without Ted by Nicola Smee, Bloomsbury board book

No Bed Without Ted by Nicola Smee (Bloomsbury 2007)

 

A brilliant lift-the-flaps book written and illustrated by Nicola Smee, combining hide-and-seek, bedtime anxieties, and some delightfully helpful pets.

The little girl at the heart of this story is all ready for bed but can’t go until her teddy is found – but where is it? Cupboards, drawers and tablecloths are lifted to reveal a growing number of animals, but no Ted. I particularly like the flap which shows Grandpa to be sitting on a bag full of – could they be? – Werthers Originals. No Bed Without Ted by Nicola Smee, Bloomsbury board book

It turns out that Ted has been washed and is outside on the washing line – another anxiety about favourite huggies and suckies and soft toys. I recall one of my children kneeling before the washing machine, paws pressed to the glass door, while his cuddly quilt swished round inside. It had been cut in two and I was hoping he wouldn’t notice when the spare half was in for a much-needed wash.

Happy endings here with everyone snuggled up to sleep, and as the blurb says ‘loads for children to investigate, spot and count’. The little mice asleep in a pair of slippers are a lovely touch.

No Bed Without Ted by Nicola Smee, Bloomsbury Board BookReally simple text, with a rhyme on the short 4-line pages, makes for a manageable and familiar storyline, and the possibility of talking about emotions with a toddler. One flap shows our heroine with a tear on her cheek.

The colours are cheery and bright without being lurid. It reminds me of Where’s Spot?, but is a bit more sophisticated.

Bound to be a favourite!

 

Dear Zoo without the frills…

A Board Book Every Week: No. 20

 Dear Zoo Animal Shapes board book by Rod Campbell - Macmillan Childrens Books

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes by Rod Campbell

(Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

 

This is a nice sturdy board book version of the famous old favourite. I like it for babies because it simplifies the original (pretty simple) text down to the name of the animal and why it isn’t right e.g.

‘Giraffe … Too tall’

‘Monkey…. Too naughty’

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes by Rod Campbell

We do lose some of the aspects that make Dear Zoo such an endearing classic – the fresh white space on the page, the exciting packages the animals come in, and the refrain of repeated ‘So they sent me a … I sent him back’. The build-up of excitement isn’t so great, but there’s a big bright animal on every page and a description to go with it that prompts exaggerated sounds, faces and gestures. For babies at the stage of flipping back and forth through the pages rather than following a story this is quite enough.

But that leads me to another plus of Dear Zoo Animal Shapes – because the words are pared back none of the animals is a ‘he’. Or a ‘she’ or an ‘it’. As has been pointed out before, every animal in the original is male for absolutely no reason whatsoever except that it’s the habit of writers and readers* to depict without thinking a default all-male world. Here you can choose, swap it about, or not bother at all.

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes board book by Rod Campbell

Of course, we end up with the perfect pet!

*I still find myself doing this, calling animals ‘he’ unless it’s dead obvious – dresses, names – that they aren’t. Yet in the real world, half of all animals are female even though they don’t wear dresses, and they tend to keep their names a secret.

Arf! and Wow! A board book every week – or two

Computer problems meant that I couldn’t post for a couple of weeks, so here’s two for the price of one…

A Board Book Every Week: 18 and 19

Wow! said the owl by Tim Hopgood, Macmillan Children's Books

Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood (Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

I know parents who are very very tired of reading the line ‘Wow! said the owl’, but come on, guys, it only turns up seven times in the book, not on every page.

This book isn’t perfect for under-ones: it’s another example of a large-format picture book (published 2009) turned into a board book, and Booktrust give it an interest age of 2+ . The text is not that gripping for real tinies, with some long complex sentences and a lot of words way beyond their comprehension. There’s no rhyme or rhythm to help, either. But I’ve chosen it because…

‘Wow!’ was just about what I said when I first saw it on the bookshop table. It has real eye-appeal.

It is gorgeous! Illustrations and colours to make your mouth water – a beautiful mix of line and wash and collage. The night-time pages are exquisite. I love the idea of exposing tiny children to a wide and wonderful world of images and styles.

The curious little owl is a female lead character – hurrah!Wow! said the owl by Tim Hopgood

She looks like an owl, not a ‘girl owl’. She has a really appealing face, with big owl eyes, but not a girly eyelash in sight!

There are lots of colours – and a rainbow – and a colour palette at the end to recap the colours seen.

The owl’s there to spot and point to on every double-page spread except for one, where you’ll have to settle for butterflies instead.

Any you do get to chant ‘Wow! said the owl’ over and over. We might not like the repetition but babies love it and learn best from it.

Can You Say It Too? Arf! Arf! by Sebastien Braun (Nosy Crow 2015)

Can you say it too? Arf! Arf! by Sebastien Braun, Nosy Crow Books

Now this is age-appropriate. Billed as ‘With BIG flaps to lift’, it’s simple, tough and fun, and the latest in a range of animal noise books from Nosy Crow. It has just five spreads, beautifully bright and sturdy, where different animals are hiding behind rocks, sandcastles and beach-balls.

I’m lucky enough to live at the seaside and I love seaside books. Seagulls, jellyfish and crabs are commonplace – sand not so much, on this stony bit of the south coast! And we would be very lucky if we were to spot seals, puffins or dolphins, though I live in eternal hope. But I like books that reflect some of a child’s own experience; they usually find this much more thrilling than even an exciting but unfamiliar setting. If this goes down a treat, we’ll be getting more ‘Can you say it too?’ books.

On that point, the nice thing about this book is that inside it doesn’t prompt the adult to demand, ‘Can you say it?’ Yes, lots of children love coming up with the right sound if they know it, but equally the pressure can be a real turn-off to any child who’s not there yet. There’s just the surprise picture and the noise to join in with.

Anyone up for a dolphin impression? Eeek! Eeek!

Anti-romantic romantics

The Town In Bloom by Dodie Smith

The Town In Bloom – Dodie Smith (1965)

 

I never got round to reading I Capture The CastleDodie Smith’s much-loved coming-of-age novel – until I’d been of age for many years. It was on my bookshelf, I’d even opened it a few times, but somehow was never in the mood for a story that began with the famous first line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

When I did get round to reading it properly, like many others I fell in love – with the book, the setting, with its 17-year-old narrator Cassandra Mortmain.

So I was delighted to find another Dodie Smith novel with a similarly young protagonist, The Town In Bloom. Not because I was looking for one, but because this reissue presented itself to me, on face-out display in my local library. That is the beauty of libraries – they give you gifts you didn’t even know you wanted. (The same with proper bookshops.)

Expecting the same sort of enchanting comfort read, I was, in a way, disappointed. It has a charmingly wayward heroine, nicknamed Mouse, and wonderful detail that makes her 1920s London come alive: the residential Club for ladies, the ‘brown dinners’, the penny-pinching, and the clothes! The bulk of the plot concerns Mouse’s adventures when she arrives in London, aged 18, hoping to make a career in the theatre. Despite being young, diminutive and provincial, Mouse is far from mousey. Brought up by a very forward-thinking aunt, she confounds many of our received ideas about just-post-World War I attitudes and morals. She meets three other young women inventing their own independent lives and the four become friends. So far, so good. But once Mouse falls in love things change.

As a (failed) actress and then successful playwright Dodie Smith was very familiar with this world. It’s a long way – in tone, at least – from the seedy theatre milieu Jean Rhys knew and wrote about, but it’s still not exactly a romp. All-too-adult compromise, subterfuge and manipulations abound.  There’s not much of the withheld – and then delivered – gratification for the reader that makes a romantic book, of whatever quality, satisfying to its reader. This is different, more realistic, anti-romantic in many ways. Independent young women don’t live fairy-tale lives after all.

I Capture The Castle may be shelved as a YA book these days, but I can’t see The Town In Bloom pleasing a similar readership. For one thing, the love interest. The men the four girls get involved with – all substantially older than them – are really not appealing, at least not to modern teens (I hope!) A philandering actor-manager, a career clergyman, a boring-but-decent chap – they’re thinly written and unsurprising. They’re pretty much all rotters, too. Another I’d pinned my hopes on only disappoints (as so often in real life, dear reader).

The second problem lies in the structure of the novel. Most of it revolves around Mouse’s first mad year in London, book-ended by two sections set in a later period, looking back. Three of the friends meet at five-year intervals (there’s a mystery with Zelle, the fourth). Looking back is fine – but how far? It turns out to be 45 years, which is huge stretch. Problematically, the women don’t seem to have changed much or feel like women in their late 60s – and in the 1960s, sixty wasn’t “the new forty”, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine my teenage self identifying with them and the paths their lives have taken.

But as a grown up reader I found this a fascinating if slightly unexpected period novel.

Dinosaurs roar for boys – and girls

Week-by-week I’m building a library of stimulating and diverse books for a baby…

A Board Book Every Week: No 17

Image result for dinosaur roar

Dinosaur Roar! by Paul Stickland & Henrietta Stickland (Doubleday 2015)

 

There’s a weird sort of gender apartheid amongst animals that seems to have sprung up since my own kids were little. You see it if you look at children’s tee shirts, sleepsuits and socks, birthday cards, even baby muslins. Manufacturers, designers and marketers have decided that only large, snappy, vibrant and possibly violent animals are of interest to boys, and only soft, fluffy, pale-coloured and supposedly amenable animals are suitable for girls.

Creatures in the middle of this silly spectrum create a few problems. Do children’swear companies not know that a single sweet bunny-rabbit can ravage an allotment? Badgers seem to be for boys: why? Is it that assertively stripy face, or the big digging paws? Butterflies are deemed girly, but where are we on moths? And the jury’s out on giraffes.

It’s as if no boy ever hugged a kitten, or no tiger ever came to tea with a little girl!

As for dinosaurs, they’re definitely seen as male territory, though there must be some boys who aren’t that interested.

But what’s not to love about a dinosaur for any child? (Or grown-up!) Claws, spikes, scales, tails, big teeth, tiny brains. Roaring about the landscape tearing up trees like giant house-plants. So I’m including Dinosaur Roar! here to balance out the fluffy bunnies, and for dinosaur-loving girls (and boys) everywhere.

First published in 1994 in larger paperback format, this is basically an ‘opposites’ book. Every page has a different adjective for a dinosaur – fast, slow, above, below, short, long, weak, strong. The occasional word isn’t very useful for tinies – meek, anyone? – because it is wanted for the rhyme. The dinosaurs here come in crazy colours and contrasting sizes. They have wonderful expressions. Even the fierce one looks as if he’s having a laugh. Their small eyes make them all look a bit intellectually-challenged. The two vivid spreads at the end of the book with dinosaurs, both carnivores and herbivores, eating lunch and making horrible noises, are great fun. And let us revisit all the different ones, and find our favourites again.

The book is published in association with the Natural History Museum and a percentage of the royalties is donated to this much-loved institution.

Sanguine spider spout situation

A Board Book Every Week: No 16

Incy Wincy Spider - Amazing baby Books (Templar Publishing)

Incy Wincy Spider – Amazing Baby Books (Templar Publishing 2015)

 

We might not be very fond of spiders in real life, but in children’s stories and nursery rhymes it’s quite another matter. Incy Wincy Spider has long been a favourite, with its simple story, easy gestures and virtually one-syllable vocabulary. Again, in real life we say drainpipe instead of water spout, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Sun, rain, up, down – it’s nice clear stuff, and Incy’s jolly pragmatism chimes well with little ones who are constantly falling over and getting up again. Incy Wincy – you are role model.

Incy Wincy Spider - Amazing Baby BooksThis Amazing Baby version is great. The text appears on the left-hand page, with a bright picture opposite, each with textured section – including sparkly textured raindrops (my favourite!)  The sun page is sunny yellows, the rain page is blue and grey. There are dots, checks, zigzags and spirals galore and many of the images have a thick black outline, the patterns and contrasts making this book appeal to small babies as well as older ones. The spider is glittery green, textured, and always cheerful.Incy Wincy Spider - Amazing Baby Books

The only thing I wished they had managed to include – texture on the spider web.

So – simple, effective and fun.

And I’ve just realised: Incy Wincy is neither a boy or a girl. So if it floats your boat, you could refer to our sanguine spider as a ‘she’.

Incy Wincy Spider - Amazing Baby Books

Picture book blogger Library Mice has recently written about another Amazing Baby book here.

 

Oh, I do love to be beside the seaside…

A Board Book Every Week: No 15

(Or almost every week…)

 

Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children's Books)

Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children’s Books 2014)

 

Being lucky enough to live near the sea – and having been obsessed with the seaside all my life – I like to collect sea-themed books. Illustrated books make this project even more fun. So I’ve tried to find some baby board books that feature seaside stuff that will become familiar to our baby mermaid and here is the first one.

The gorgeous Deep Deep Sea is essentially a simple colour and counting book, with a gentle palette of Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children's Books) sea colours – quite unusual in baby books. That may make it less than high-contrast, but there are plenty of bright beady eyes to find on the sea creatures. Okay, I concede that whales, green turtles and seahorses don’t turn up every day on the beach. And I’ve been on dolphin spotting trips and never seen a blooming one! But I live in hope.

Frann Preston-Gannon makes lovely illustrated books: subtle and mainly subdued colours, flattish images, but rich in texture. There’s something slightly poignant about it all. I definitely want more.

One aspect that appealed to me about this book is that after reaching ‘5 red starfish’ it gives up on subsequent tougher numbers and leaps straight to the exciting ‘100 colourful fish’. I haven’t counted them all. There had better be one hundred – but I’ll leave that to busy little fingers a few years down the line.

 

 

As easy as ABC?

A Board Book Every Week: No 14

Jane Foster's ABC, board book, Templar Publishing

Jane Foster’s ABC (Templar Books 2015)

‘As easy as ABC…’?

Well, ABC isn’t actually that easy if your brain gets lost in those dubious middle regions – JKL anyone? And why on earth does P come after O? RST seems logical, yet U V and W afterwards are pretty random. Of course, this may just be me. But we can probably all agree that XYZ is the perfect ending.

Alphabet books has been around for centuries. Even if, quite frankly, we don’t teach the alphabet like this any longer, ABC is a handy way of organising a picture book. There have been some fabulous versions over the years…

A Peacable Kingdom, the Shaker Abecedarius

Delicate animal images from ‘A Peaceable Kingdom, the Shaker Abecedarius’

 

Z for Zip, Paul Thurlby's Alphabet (Templar)

Z for Zip from Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet

 

Ladybird Books ABC

The oh-so-familiar style of vintage Ladybird Books

…so have I broken my rule of book-selection for babies and gone for one that pleases me more than it suits an under-1-year-old? Erm – I think Jane Foster’s ABC will please us both. The stylised images probably won’t mean much yet to tiny readers but their vivid colours, sharp black outlines, and high contrast graphic patterns will definitely grab them. This book is sturdy and well-produced and should withstand lots of love.

Some words are simple and familiar – T for tree, H for house, I for ice cream  – and many of them darned exciting – dinosaur, octopus, rocket! We still have the perennial problems of K (kite) and X (xylophone) (YAWN!) but Y is for yoyo and not, thank goodness, for the unspellable and improbable yacht. Then W is for wolf and Z for zebra. I just wish both these two had been given more space to play in.

Jane Foster's ABC, Templar Books, board book

And – yippee! – a gorgeous end page with a summary of every letter from A-Z, which lets us grown-ups see how clever the choices of colour and image have been. And lets babies look and find.

The first-page image is a beautiful A for armadillo, curled into a circle and looking at the reader with big black eyes. So maybe I fell in love with this book and then found justification for buying it. Armadillo is not the go-to favourite animal of most babies. (Yet.) But I do collect ABCs – so can I be forgiven?