A board book every week No 4 – Slinky Malinki

 

 Slinky Malinki, Early Bird

by Lynley Dodd (Puffin Books 2014)

 

Slinky Malinki, Early Bird by Lynley Dodd

New Zealand writer Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary is one of my absolute favourite books – for rhythm, rhymes that make you laugh, and names that make you laugh even more.

Instead of lots of eccentric dogs, Slinky Malinki follows one single black cat and his* (very familiar) morning attempts to wake everyone in the household and then claim the comfiest bed. The bouncy rhythms and perfect rhymes of Hairy Maclary are here, but far fewer words: a shorter, simpler story. Much more suitable for a baby board book.

There are several books about Slinky Malinki and this is the latest, first out in larger format in 2012.

All the action takes place in a house, mostly in bedrooms, so there’s limited and recognisable stuff to talk about on the page, and always Slinky himself to spot, sometimes just a bit of him peering round the edge of a door or a curtain. He bounces like a ball, plays hide and seek, sings yowly songs, and sits on heads, until everyone is awake – all (fairly) understandable for a small child.

I partly chose Slinky Malinki, Early Bird because there’s a very similar-looking black cat in the household of the baby I’m finding these books for. It is feeling a bit displaced at the moment, a sort of pet/sibling rivalry at being shut out of the bedroom at night and having someone new take all the attention. But when the baby is old enough to notice the cat, this book will come into its own.

 

*Yes, Slinky is male. Yet another boy animal as lead character in a children’s book. Ho hum. But you could subvert the whole thing and read it out loud as ‘she’ and ‘her’ instead.

Summer Reading 3: Islands of adventure…and growing up.

seaweed and limpets, Cornish beach

Recently I’ve been thinking, and blogging, about what kind of reading fits with summer days and I’ve finally got round to some children’s books. There’s still time! The weather may not be so summery right now but there are still weeks to go until…but let’s not think about that.

I’ve never been to the Scilly Isles but have long wanted to visit. Even more so now, after reading Breathing Underwater by Julia Green (2009), based on a fictionalised version of this archipelago off the tip of Cornwall. 14-year-old Freya returns for the first time in a year to the tiny island where her grandparents live and where her big brother drowned the summer before. It’s sad, but story and setting are beautifully evoked, as are the things that have changed and those which stay the same. I hate that lazy phrase ‘coming to terms with’, but I guess this is what the book is all about, and yet much more. Freya is growing up and stretching her wings. It also sums up wonderfully the way a holiday place can be somewhere you think of as your very own, more you than where you live most of your life – even when that’s painful, too.

Cornish cove

Cornish cove

 

Somewhere I have spent a lot of summertime in is mainland Cornwall, since my grandparents lived there and my mum grew up there. Also beautifully evoked, Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series (2006 onwards) mixes very convincing rocky coves, sandy beaches, caves, sun and sea-fog of the real Cornwall with a more mythical underwater strand which begins with a carved mermaid in Zennor church. Ingo is also about loss and longing; a little, too, about the economic difficulties of living in a remote, rural and seasonal county – but I expect grown-up readers will pick up more on this.  I’ve only read the first volume but have the second – The Tide Knot – lined up and can’t wait. Dunmore writes amazing novels for adults and is a poet, too – it shows.

In both these books children and young teens are testing their independence, and I love reading about their freedom to take risks and weigh up consequences.

For less nuanced reading, here are a couple of other ideas.

islands of adventure

More islands, swimming, sailing, picnics, camping out and building fires feature in my next suggestion. A much more traditional one: Swallows & Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1929). I confess I haven’t reread this since childhood and there may be some very uncomfortable attitudes lurking in it for modern-day readers. I know one of the characters has an embarrassing name that has not really stood the test of time. But there are ‘pirates’, intrepid and skilful girls, and plenty of adventures. It was in this book that I first came across a reference to pemmican – some kind of convenience-meal canned meat that, as a squeamish eater, I felt very nervous about – and because of my very literal young mind I just made the connection: pelican in a can. Obviously!

I’ve written elsewhere that I never read much Enid Blyton as a child, but I did enjoy a couple of the titles in the

The Island of Adventure by Enid BlytonAdventure’ seriesThe Island of Adventure being the only one I remember anything about! But Blyton is never short of picnics, boats, beaches and islands, and the kind of adventures that can only be had when responsible adults are right out of the picture and only the wicked, but easily outwitted by a handful of kids and a dog (or, in this instance, a parrot) type, are left.

 

Happy holidays (if only inside the pages of a book)!

The Stockport Children’s Book Award 2014

The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth has been shortlisted for another children’s book award, in Stockport this time. The lovely people who organise the awards sent out questions to all the authors on the list so that they could post the answers on their website.

I don’t know about other authors, but I always enjoy being interviewed about books and writing (especially if I’ve got time to work on the answers!) and the questions asked of children’s writers are generally much more fun than those asked about writing for grown-ups.

Here is what they asked, and what I replied:

What was your inspiration for this book?

The names Gully Potchard and Clemency Wrigglesworth popped into my head from nowhere and I had to explore who they were. They sounded like characters from a children’s book (I was writing for adults at the time) and old fashioned and slightly comical, so that gave me the tone and setting. After that it was fun all the way!

What was your favourite book as a child?

So many but I will opt for the Just William books by Richmal Crompton, because they still make me laugh, and Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty, which I read over and over, although it still makes me cry!

What were you like at school?

Very well-behaved and responsible at junior school (a prefect, always in choir and orchestra, dance clubs etc) but this tailed off soon after I went up to ‘big’ school and I was more of a rebel and class comedian.

What advice would you offer to budding writers?

You’re only a writer if you write – having great ideas is the easy bit! Getting them down, shaping them, and finishing is much harder. Daydreaming is good, and so is being bored – believe it or not – it makes you use your imagination. Look at the world around you like an anthropologist, or an alien, and see what you see. Read lots, including books outside your usual comfort zone. I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Can you tell us about any new projects you are working on?

My next book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, is complete and will be out this August. Now I’m writing a detective story with an unlikely comic heroine, set in the 1920’s, and a historical novel that isn’t funny at all.

What has been your favourite children’s book this year?

Again, so hard to choose. Um…Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll, and Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans, although the last one is not brand-new.

 

The Stockport Children’s Book Award was launched in 1995. The aims of the project are:

  • to raise the profile of reading for pleasure
  • to offer children access to some of the best new fiction
  • to increase parents’, teachers’ and school librarians’ awareness of new fiction
  • to create a community of readers in Stockport by:
  • providing opportunities for children to meet authors
  • providing a forum for reading and an opportunity to share books

Blue is the colour

photo (38)

There’s an interesting Twitter hashtag on the go at the moment – #bookadayuk – an idea from new imprint The Borough Press. It has a different theme each day to get everyone talking and tweeting about books. 

My favourite so far was the Blue Book Cover day. In honour of it I’m even writing in blue today!

Blue is clearly a popular colour for covers – there are lots of them out there, and lots on my own bookshelves, I discovered. Here are a few that are so beautiful I’ll include them here even though they are books for adults. 

Yesterday Morning by Diana Athill

Breath by Tim Winton If the book title or contents feature something about air or water, sky, sea, or heaven, then blue is an obvious choice and can result in some truly stunning images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It might be part of a rich tapestry of colour and evoke the palette of other eras. Blue can be shorthand for misty nostalgia, or sad introspection – or even dark dangers.

But it’s often the colour of joy.

The Children's Book by A S Byatt, paperback

 

Midnight is a Place New 40th Anniversary Edition

As any regular readers know, I am a big fan of Joan Aiken’s children’s books so I am really happy that Midnight Is A Place is having a new edition and hope it will reach a whole new young audience. And for me, too, as I’m sure this is one title of hers I haven’t read!

Joan Aiken

Midnight

One of the most highly praised of Joan Aiken’s historical melodramas is now being republished to celebrate the book’s 40th anniversary.  The story of Midnight Court, and two of Aiken’s most unfortunate orphans,  the doubly disinherited Lucas and Anna-Marie, was hailed variously as “the stuff of nightmares,” but also as a deeply moving portrayal of the real evils of industrialisation and child labour, and while “steeped in nineteenth century literary traditions,”   and  “juggling an army of seedy villains with Dickensian aplomb” it also “earns its place in the landscape of humorous fiction.”

Should we go on?  “In this thrilling tale we have machines which crush children to death, herds of man-eating hogs in subterranean sewers, and a wicked old gentleman  “charred to a wisp” in the burning remains of his ill-gotten house…” all described “superbly, with a force, a colour and strength of imagination that one encounters all too rarely.”…

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Promoting a love of reading – Rotherham Children’s Book Awards

Rotherham Children's Book Awards 2014

Rotherham Children’s Book Awards 2014 were launched in February and I was delighted to learn that The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth is on the shortlist of four books in the Middle category, that is, books for years 4-5 (8-10 year olds).

The Rotherham Children’s Book Awards are the culmination of a year-long process for schools to promote a love of reading, using the best books – from jolly picture books to edgy teen reads – from the thousands released that year. The great thing about it is that the shortlist is chosen by a group of students and people working in Rotherham’s schools and libraries.

This is the 14th year of the award and it ends in a day’s celebration in June attended by hundreds of children and teenagers from Rotherham schools. There are loads of book-related activities and displays of work created by the children, based on the books they have most enjoyed during the year. Authors who attended in previous years have blogged about it: you can read Jonathan Emmett and Teri Terry’s accounts of the day.

Find details of all the books up for the 2014 Awards here. It’s not just the usual suspects, either.

My Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books

Fledge flying horse The Magician's Nephew

When I blogged about my top 10 animals in children’s fiction back in September I promised to follow up with my favourite horse characters, because I felt they deserved a list of their own. Finally, here it is.

I was a sucker for a pony story as a child, and I read anything I could find in my local library with a horse on the cover or a hint of one in the title. I must have consumed a lot of rubbish about gymkhanas and curry combs and five-barred-gates which I have completely forgotten now. Looking at my choices of rather more classic books below, I realise they are all highly dramatic, and highly romantic – even, at a pinch – the Thelwell ponies, who are the objects of their girl-riders’ romantic affections.

1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877). I blogged about this book here and here. Beauty is beautiful (natch) in looks and temperament, honest, ill-used, and eloquent in this, his ‘Autobiography Of A Horse’. He is the template against which all other fictional horses – and many human heroes and heroines – are measured. And fall a little short.

2. Thelwell ponies – any of the cartoon ponies created by the (somewhat reluctant) Norman Thelwell. They are the complete antidote to all the other noble equines here. Thelwell ponies are short, fat, hairy, stubborn, lazy, and selfish, and not even very good at natural horsey skills. Unless by natural horsey skills we mean kicking, bucking, shying, braking suddenly, and foraging in hedges. Yet they are still adored by their owners and riders, and readers of the little books like A Leg At Each Corner (1961). The nearest I could get to having a bloody-minded little Merrylegs of my own.

The Silver Brumby by Elynne Mitchell

3. Thowra in The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell (1958). Thowra is a wild Australian horse whose pale colour marks him out to other horses and to threatening humans, so already as a colt he has the makings of a persecuted hero. I loved Mitchell’s tale, told from the horses’ point of view without anthropomorphising them. A story firmly rooted in the natural world and using Thowra’s knowledge of it, so yet another strand that appealed to me as a child – and still does.

4. Flicka in My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara (1941). I watched loads of Westerns as a child. Cowboy films and TV series seemed to be the common dramatic staple then, just as cop/crime shows are now. My Friend Flicka, set on a Wyoming ranch, fulfilled my love of all things outdoorsy while I lay on the sofa with my nose in a book! It has the best ingredients: our sympathetic attraction to the underdog (the least favourite son, the filly that isn’t wanted), family rivalry and injustice, learning, love and loyalty. It also features serious injury, life-threatening illness and gruesome details, all of which seemed totally necessary to many of the books I relished, and were seen as perfectly suitable – nay, classic – material for child-readers!

My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara

5. Strawberry in The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis (1955). Which takes us almost back to Black Beauty, since Strawberry is an overworked cab-horse in Victorian London when he gets whisked by magic to the Wood Between the Worlds and into Narnia as it is created. There Strawberry makes the ultimate transformation into Fledge, not only a flying horse, but a talking one as well. As Fledge he becomes the first in line of all the flying horses of Narnia. I loved the idea of a knackered old working horse finding his youthful strength again, blossoming into a mythical beast, and, as Beauty never could, gaining the capacity to tell humans the truth.

Flambards by K M Peyton OUPI’d also like to give an honourable mention to the horses in the Flambards books by K M Peyton, although by the time I discovered these I was more interested in the budding romance between the human characters than the horse-riding stuff. The beautiful, romantic, but accurate equine illustrations by the amazing Victor Ambrus really added to the delight.

And to The Pie in Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935). This is another novel of transformation, and bears almost no resemblance to the famous film with a young Elizabeth Taylor as plain little slaughter-houseman’s daughter Velvet.

Lastly, though it is definitely not a book for children, Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley (2000) is a wonder. A huge book about the American racing community, it tells parallel stories of jockeys, trainers, breeders, owners, grooms, various hangers-on – plus a dog and several horses! The amazing foal who might become a star, and the experienced old nag who is more than he seems. I have never, ever read anyone who creates the truly alien perceptions of an animal so persuasively before. The heart-wrenching powerlessness of the horses as they inevitably change hands, even on the way up in value, let alone on the way down, takes me right back to where I started, with Black Beauty.

Strawberry into Fledge, The Magician's Nephew by C S Lewis

Reading together: building memories, shared jokes, and a family shorthand.

‘I always wanted to be a writer. Some of my earliest memories are about telling myself made-up stories as I played. And I was an avid reader.

Although it’s wonderful to sink into the world of a book all on your own and tune out everyone around you, finding you love the same novel as someone else, or being able to recite favourite bits of a story together make a real bond…’

You can read the rest of my guest blog for Reading Force here.

Reading Force is an initiative that brings British forces children and families closer together through sharing books. I was very excited when The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth was chosen as one of their 2014 recommended books. If you need any inspiration you can find a range of fab books for children of all ages on their latest list of recommended reads here.

Alice In Wonderland by George Leslie Dunlop

Alice In Wonderland, a painting by George Leslie Dunlop 1879

‘Black Beauty’ revisited (1)

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

In preparation for drawing up the list of my Top 5 Horses in Children’s Books, I am reading Black Beauty. It was one of my best-loved books as a child yet I hadn’t picked it up since. I must have owned a copy as I read it a number of times but I have absolutely no memory of what the book looked like, whether it was hardback or paperback, of jumble-sale origin or brand-new.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell cover image

This time round I’ve bought a secondhand copy as the covers of new ones I found in bookshops came nowhere near what my idea of Beauty ought to look like. (The ones I’ve included here are ones I do approve of!) As a classic book, long out of copyright, there are lots of editions available with variable cover images. Some make Beauty look handsome and noble (correct). Others are frankly naff, the artwork apparently based on a plastic toy animal rather than a living, breathing horse. One audio version cover makes Beauty more like a plump cartoon pig than well-bred horseflesh!

It is hard now to imagine a world as full of horses as ours is full of cars. They were ridden or driven as transport, pulled everything from smart carriages to ploughs, omnibuses to hearses, were used for pleasure riding, and as pets-cum-playthings and teaching aids for children. We understand that cars are owned and run by experts and enthusiasts, by those who just use them to get from A to B but take reasonable care of them, and by people who don’t know what goes on under the bonnet or how to drive sensibly or safely. And, before the advent of the internal combustion engine, it was just the same with horses. But horses are sentient beings and herd animals, not machines.

horse-drawn vehicles traffic jam

I now know that Black Beauty was written as a kind of 19th century best-practice guide to horse care rather than a pony story for children, which was how it was presented to me. Anna Sewell was concerned about the ill-treatment of horses, through ignorance, arrogance, and thoughtlessness as much as through deliberate cruelty or neglect. This is the only book she ever wrote and she frequently strikes a practical rather than a romantic note, trying to appeal to common sense, and even economy, if entreating compassion won’t wash. One of her lessons is that if you treat a horse well and don’t overwork it, you will get better service and more years out of it. She obviously understands the different conditions that must prevail in settings like livery stables – the hire-car outlet of its day – and cab ranks, grand country houses with designer stable blocks, and pleasant vicarage meadows. Some of the difference is down to sheer economic necessity, but not all. Some is due to the temperament of the owners and workers. Sewell seems to me a keen observer of human nature, even if her humans tend to embody types she wants to show us rather than 3-dimensional characters.

horse-drawn Victorian Hansom cab

Black Beauty is a short book and I am only a quarter of the way through – nothing too dreadful has happened to Beauty yet. But on this reading I can see that each chapter presents a small moral and/or practical lesson: how – and why – to break a horse in gently and slowly; how to get it used to traffic and trains; why bad habits like biting and kicking are a result of bad treatment; even how to find out the true character of an employee in a subtle way.

But as a child I just consumed Beauty’s narrative, even if on re-readings I knew that it was all going to go horribly wrong before it came right again. I think it’s where I first appreciated that there was a narrative arc to a story – for example, from riches to rags to riches again – or in Beauty’s case from bran mash to beatings and back. The book’s subtitle is The Autobiography of a Horse and it’s told in the first person (or first horse) by Beauty himself. I had forgotten this. I wonder if it was the first novel to be narrated by an animal? I’d also forgotten that Beauty (!) is male, and that poor put-upon, biter and kicker Ginger is female.

I know that Beauty, like a long-lost childhood sweetheart, has got to be top of my list. I just had to check him out first. More about Black Beauty later…

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell book cover design

How A Story Became A Board Game

I was delighted to discover that Jacqson Diego Story Emporium, a lovely independent children’s bookshop in Westcliff on Sea, Essex, chose to read The Mysterious Misadventures… with their Story Bites book club in October. Then they tweeted a picture of a work in progress – Clemency Wrigglesworth: The Game – which they were making over a couple of sessions.

The game invites players in with the banner: ‘Frightening Miss Claw is coming your way so roll high to get away’. ‘Make one step back if you meet a bad person.’ Yes, there are plenty of baddies to get in the way! I can see the ship at the start which Clemency has to board to come to England, the sweet shop where Gully learns something important, and The Great Hall where Clemency and her enemies – and friends – finally tangle up.

I can’t seem to include the picture but you can see it here – pic.twitter.com/qReWZ9XwUj

In the classic board game set-up, you progress along a path from start to finish, step-by-step, helped by bursts of good fortune and thwarted by setbacks just lurking in wait. Up the Ladder – hurrah! – but suddenly down a Snake. You might be ahead of your competitors with the end in sight, but suddenly you’re back far behind them. In games like Monopoly you even choose a ‘character’ to be – the top hat, the boot, the racing car. You come into money, then have to blow it all to Get Out of Jail. Something familiar here, isn’t there?…it’s just like a story.

This brilliant idea for making a children’s book come even more alive made me think that so many adventure stories, from Famous Five to His Dark Materials, are structured like a board game. A journey to be undertaken, a goal to be reached or someone to be rescued, snags and setbacks encountered on the way, enemies met, but also helpers. No matter how clever and brave the protagonists try to be, a sudden twist of fate can turn everything on its head. Two steps forward, one step back. Or more like ten steps back and down a dark chasm with no apparent route out. Now I’m wondering about my favourite stories and how they might be transformed into games.  This would be such a wonderful rainy-day activity for children, with drawing and cutting and sticking, and remembering what came when and deciding what the key settings are. I feel like getting the colouring pens out right now!

Thanks to Jacqson Diego and their Story Biters for a great idea. I haven’t visited (yet) but it sounds like the perfect inspiring children’s bookshop, with so much going on to bring stories and children together and instil a lifelong love of books.