Friday, 25 October 2013

Funny prize, fiction prize and Katie Morag on TV

Two prize announcements this week - the Guardian Fiction Prize was won by Rebecca Stead for Liar & Spy. I've not read it yet, but When you reach me was a wonderful, intriguing novel so I have high hopes of loving this one too. It's the first time an American has won this prize apparently.
The short list for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize was also announced. I don't, I'm ashamed to say, know any of the books but I'm sure titles such as Noisy bottoms will have a certain appeal.

Finally - something I do know about: Katie Morag. CBeebies has now filmed 26 episodes of these delightful stories about a little girl living on a fictional Scottish island. Although Katie Morag's Struay was based on Coll, one-time home of author Mairi Hedderwick, the programmes were made in Lewis. I hope they boost tourism to all the Hebridean islands when they air next month. It's been too long since I had an island-hopping holiday myself!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Sara Grant: Half Lives

Sara Grant's Half Lives (Indigo, 2013) tells the story of two young people living in the same place but separated by time. Icie (short for Isis) is a 21st-century teenager at high school in Washington DC. Her life is completely normal until the day her parents (a government employee and a nuclear physicist) tell her they must leave for Las Vegas immediately. They have the key to a secret mountain bunker there, and must hide out to avoid an imminent terrorist attack - not bombs, but a deadly virus. Not only that, they have breached national security by taking the key and running away. As a result of this, Icie's parents are arrested before they get to the plane and she has to go on alone. On her journey, she meets three other young people: cheerleader Marissa, poor little rich boy Tate who dreams of being a rock star, and the mysterious Chaske who saves her life by killing a venomous snake. Together, they find the bunker and seal themselves up to await - what?

Interleaved with this is the story of another group inhabiting the mountain at some time in the post-virus future and worshipping the Great I AM. Their young leader is Beckett, and most of this second story is told from his point of view as he faces challenges from some of those he thought were his friends and decides what to do when a mysterious girl, Greta, appears on the mountain. He falls for her, but is she a spy from a terrorist group?

How do these two stories connect, and do they work together? Initially, I found Icie's story much more compelling and would look ahead to see what was going to happen next before reading Beckett's sections. However, I was gripped as the connections became more apparent and it became obvious that something of Icie had survived - the language and rituals of the group owe a lot to 21st-century teen vocabulary with "Whatever" elevated to a sacred word. Even the characters' names begin to take on a significance related to our own time. Eventually, both Icie and Beckett discover the mountain's dangerous secret which has a profound effect on their lives.

If you enjoy this book, you might like others on Survivor,  a list from Strathclyde University:
"Mostly set in apocalyptic versions of the future, the books on this list share a common theme: the battle for survival. Their central characters, usually teenagers, have to overcome fire, floods, demons or some other horror as they struggle to build new lives or new societies. As well as being good stories, the books will also make their readers think about the way we treat our world today."
Half Lives certainly fits into that theme.

Disclaimer: I won this book from the Indigo & Orion Children's Books in a draw, but I was not required to write a review, favourable or otherwise. The book will now be donated to the wonderful Glasgow Women's Library which has recently started collecting books for younger women.

Friday, 11 October 2013

100 books to read before you're 14

In honour of Children's Book Week, Booktrust has announced its Ultimate List - 100 books every child should read before he / she is 14. It's split into four age-groups and covers the last 100 years. Until 15th November you can cast a vote in each category and the top books will be announced on the 25th. Instead of the normal Friday roundup, I thought I'd spend time thinking about this and my choices are below. I have to say, many of the books on the list were published long after my childhood (and I'm nowhere near 100 before you even think about asking), but I did know most of them through having worked in libraries for the last 30+ years.

0-5 years

David McKee: Not now, Bernard. (Andersen).

Poor Bernard tries to tell his parents about the monster in the garden, but will they listen? No! They fob him off with "Not now, Bernard" until it's too late - the monster eats him.

I've chosen this because it's great to read aloud - I remember using it in story-times when it was first published in the 1980s. The illustrations are clear and easy to see, even for those at the back of the group, it has plenty of repetition for the children to join in with, and it builds up their anticipation with an agreeable shudder.

6-8 years

Michael Bond: A bear called Paddington. (HapperCollins).

For this age-group, I was torn between two books from my own childhood. I loved the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories about a little girl growing up in the 1920s but I'm not sure they would appeal to children of today, whereas I think Paddington is timeless. The eccentric bear who comes from "Darkest Peru", and keeps a marmalade sandwich in his hat, gets into all sorts of scrapes that reassure a naughty child that he or she is not alone.


9-11 years

David Almond: Skellig. (Hodder).

The choice is becoming increasingly difficult as I move through the age-groups. Here, I am again torn between childhood favourites (Swallows and Amazons and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to name just two) and books that impressed me later (Private Peaceful, Flour Babies and Goodnight Mr Tom could all have made the cut.) I finally decided on Skellig, currently celebrating its 15th anniversary, because it is so different. Who is Skellig? Is he an angel?  If he is, he's a contender to be the most cantankerous one in literature. Does he, as Michael appears to think, help save his little sister? This story packs a real emotional punch.

12-14 years and beyond

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights.

Tough choices again. There are three titles on the list which start off trilogies which I greatly admire: The Hunger Games, The Knife of Never Letting Go and Northern Lights. I've gone for the latter mainly because of the book's heroine, Lyra, who is funny, courageous and fiercely intelligent. The cast of supporting characters is varied and equally lovable  - or loathable in the case of Mrs Coulter and her cronies - and the concept of daemons (a sort of external soul) allows an extra level of commentary as they and their humans consider events. I also liked the alternative, rather steampunk, world that Lyra lives in. I can't read this in public though; there's a scene towards the end that makes me cry every time.

So those are my choices and I've now voted. What will you choose? And can you spot a pattern in my choices? When I looked them over at the end I realised that all the authors were men. So here is my alternative all-female list which I could just as easily have chosen:

0-5 Judith Kerr. The tiger who came to tea. HarperCollins.
6-8 Joyce Lankester Brisley. The Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook. Macmillan.
9-11 Anne Fine. Flour Babies. Puffin.
12-14 Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games. Scholastic.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Book Week Scotland and other stories: posts of the week 3

The programme for Book Week Scotland (25/11/13 - 01/12/13) was announced this week. Some items particularly relevant to children are:
  • Three free picture books will be given to every Primary 1 pupil in Scotland. The titles consist of the shortlist for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards 2013: Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb, What's the Time Mr Wolf by Debi Gliori and Jumblebum by Chae Strathie and Ben Cort.
  • Scottish children’s illustrator and author Mairi Hedderwick will bring her most famous character, Katie Morag, to life for children across Scotland during a special live broadcast in partnership with the BBC on 28 November.
  • Book Week Scotland's Author Ambassadors include children’s author and illustrator Nick Sharratt. Along with popular fiction author Shari Low and poet Ryan Van Winkle he will lead the push to spread the joy of reading throughout the country.
There's a new edition out of Books for Keeps, the online children's book magazine, featuring news, reviews and features on authors such as David Almond, Patrick Ness and Neil Gaiman.

New sites discovered this week include Outside In World - the organisation dedicated to promoting and exploring world literature and children's books in translation - and Picture Books in ELT which has just won the Best English Blog Award from Really Learn English.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Lynne Rickard's work as a Writer-in-Residence in Methil in Fife where she has been collaborating with a group of women to produce a picture-book on healthy eating. In the project's blog, The Methil Makars, this week there is an account of a workshop with Alison Murray, author of Apple Pie ABC. It's an interesting insight into how an illustrator gets from first sketches to finished book.

Last week, I mentioned an exhibition about children's books in New York. Slightly closer to home is the British Library's Picture This exhibition about ten of the most iconic illustrated children's books of the 20th century. The Telegraph lists all ten (my favourite has to be Paddington Bear) and the Guardian also has more information. It's on till 26th January if you happen to be in London before then.

Kirsty's Blog has a piece on drama and children's literature (not new, but I've just spotted it) - Kirsty is a B.Ed (Primary) student in Australia. Here, she writes about the work she did with her class based on Night of the gargoyles by Eve Bunting, and there's a lot more on drama elsewhere in the blog.

The BBC reports on a new survey by the National Literacy Trust which suggests that fewer children across the UK are reading in their own time and one in five is embarrassed to be caught with a book. This is sad for all sorts of reasons, not least the evidence that children who read do better at school and in life - most recently, again from a BBC report, the Institute of Education report found that reading improved performance not only in English but in Maths. Not to finish on a negative note, let's take this full circle and return to Book Week Scotland - a chance to get more children reading and try to increase the two in five in the survey who thought that reading was cool.

That's all for this week! Happy reading.