Friday, 28 February 2014

When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

A few weeks ago the Telegraph published an article centred around When Mr Dog Bites, questioning whether children's books should come with recommended reader age warnings. You can read the article here, and the response of Bloomsbury Publishing Director Rebecca McNally here. It began a fascinating debate on social networks, prompting a lot of strong views. The reason for the language and some sexual discussion is quite obvious: the story is being narrated by a 16-year-old boy with Tourette's. I truly enjoyed the debate about profanity in children's books, and I do believe authors and editors only include it when it is truthful and necessary to the character and story. But if you want to read more about those debates, feel free to follow the links above. Needless to say, it was all this discussion that led to me reading the book, wanting to know what the fuss was about.

Dylan Mint is a likable character who, despite his Tourette's, isn't really all that different from other kids his age. He wants to have sex with the prettiest girl in his school, he wants to make sure his best friend is happy, and he wants his dad to come home from the war. But Dylan knows he is different, he knows he's at a school for people with disabilities, and he is all too aware of his own struggle with Tourette's. He tries to control it, but sometimes he can't and that's when "Mr Dog" comes out. He doesn't like his Tourette's, is embarrassed and apologetic to others for it, and then he hears the doctor say he's going to die in March. This springs Dylan to take action on making sure he does everything he really wants before March, leading to hilarious results and shocking discoveries.

There was one scene in When Mr Dog Bites that upset me, and not from the profanity, but due to how "normal" kids treated Dylan just because of his disability. They took advantage of him, and they wanted to exploit his Tourette's, his embarrassment, for their own amusement. It disturbed me because I saw the exact same thing happen many times while growing up. The school system I went to was different from Dylan's in that it was inclusive of children with mental and physical disabilities. They were in classes with all other children up until a certain age, and while they eventually were separated from us to attend their own classes, they were very much a part of our school and a part of the school's social events. I remember watching, horrified, as a group of teenage boys pushed a boy with mental disabilities to shout words he didn't understand, then laughing hysterically at the result. It was awful to experience in real life, and reading it from Dylan's perspective just made it more obvious as to how some people actually think it's funny when someone else has a disability, particularly one like Dylan's where he'll lose control and shout curse words. It's a type of bullying, and one I felt was addressed in the book particularly well.

When Mr Dog Bites is a book that doesn't just captivate and entertain, but really makes you think. Should someone like Dylan be treated any differently because of his condition? Does treating him differently make things better or worse for him? Would a more inclusive environment for teens with mental disabilities help them, or maybe even help other people understand the problems they face any better? Sure there's more swearing in this book than a standard YA novel, but to focus on that would be to miss the point. In a time where we're finally beginning to openly discuss mental health it's great to have a character like Dylan Mint who is able to face the demon that is his Tourette's and not let it ruin his life. He sets his goals at the beginning of the book and he doesn't give up. Like anyone else, Dylan may have his faults, but he seems to accept them in a way that is truly admirable.

As clearly stated on the back of the book, this isn't for younger readers. You can purchase When Mr Dog Bites from Bloomsbury here.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Last Wild by Piers Torday

I have to admit that when I picked up a copy of The Last Wild I didn't know anything about it. I do not know how I had missed it for so long, and I'm rather ashamed I did. The reason I did pick it up was for two simple lines on the back of the book: 
1. There is a flock of excited pigeons in his bedroom. 
2. They are talking to him.
I wondered what pigeons would say if they could talk, so I bought the book with no other expectations.

Kester is a boy living inside a quarantine zone. The world outside has become dangerous due to the Red Eye virus that has run rampant and killed out all the wildlife - except the animals known as vermin (pigeons, rats, cockroaches). Contact with any animal is avoided, in case they are carrying the deadly Red Eye. But soon Kester, who hasn't been able to speak for years, discovers he can communicate with the pigeons and even the cockroach who help him make a dramatic escape back into the quarantine zone. And it's here that Kester learns the truth: not all of the animals have died. There are only a few left, and their numbers are dwindling as they are ravaged by the disease. But they now have a human who they can talk to, who they can convince to help them find a cure for the Red Eye, so that the last remaining wild can be saved.

Rather amusingly, I had been trying to avoid dystopian books for a while. After The Hunger Games, it seemed like there were too many showing up on the market with very little to offer. So I'm incredibly pleased I wasn't aware this was a dystopian book, otherwise I would not have picked it up, and I would have missed out on a brilliant story.

This is a great book for readers who are interested in dystopian fiction, but perhaps not old enough to get into the more popular YA titles of this genre or want to avoid the ones that are particularly dark. That's not to say those who enjoy the YA titles won't enjoy The Last Wild - in fact, they may find it a refreshing take on dystopias. With adventure and hints at fantasy, this book is a great read with a strong message about the importance of wildlife and nature. Kester is a fascinating lead character who will appeal to both boys and girls. The animals who accompany him are equally fantastic and quite comical at times.

The Last Wild has just been listed on the Waterstones Children's Book of the Year shortlist, and its sequel, The Dark Wild, is due out at the beginning of April. So it's time to start reading it if you haven't already. You can buy The Last Wild from Quercus books here.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Have you ever found a book that is just so beautiful you don't really care what it's about? Because that's how I felt the moment I saw the illustrations of Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, translated from French by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou. It's great to see such a gorgeous graphic novel that not only appeals to girls, but addresses the issues that so many find they deal with during adolescence: self-esteem and physical appearance.

Helene has not had it easy at school. All of her former friends have abandoned her, and now entertain themselves by writing insults about Helene on the bathroom walls, or saying it out loud when they know she can hear. Their attacks on her appearance make Helene incredibly self-conscious, to the point she believes everything they say about her. It's a heartbreaking story seeing how a young girl can allow unkind and untrue words to alter her view of herself as well as the world around her. But Helene finds some relief in reading Jane Eyre, seeing how Jane grew up to be a beautiful intelligent woman, despite being a lonely orphan in her youth. As the bullying continues, it's not shocking to see how Helene retreats further into herself, and she begins to think that while Jane Eyre might have been lucky, it won't be true for herself.

This is a poignant story showing a different side of the person being bullied. We are introduced not to the typical victim who feels they are constantly being wronged, but one who actually believes what her tormentors say is true. Even if you cannot empathise with Helene, you may begin to realise that what you say to others really can affect how they view themselves. At least, I hope this is what young girls will take away from this story, and I think that providing it in a graphic novel format will potentially appeal to those girls who might not generally read. The illustrations provide the real sense of isolation that Helene experiences, with the sparing use of colour bringing the hope she initially lacks.

Walker Books have clearly put a lot of thought into the production of this book, getting the design spot on. Their close attention to matching the cover and the end papers to the colours of the illustrations really brings the whole book together in a spectacular presentation. (The copy I bought also had a fantastic fresh from the printer smell!) It's worth owning this title if not for the illustrations but for reminder of how much our words can mean to someone. This is a lesson that unfortunately seems to be reiterated to children and teens, but here, rather than being said it is shown through the emotion-provoking illustrations. If only there were more graphic novels as impressive and appealing to young girls as this one!
You can buy Jane, the Fox and Me directly from Walker Books on their website here.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much by Laura Dockrill

If you've not been introduced to the world of Darcy Burdock, now is the time to change that. With the second book in the series, Hi So Much., due to be published on February 27th, Darcy Burdock is rapidly becoming the "it" girl in tween fiction. She's funny, she's creative, and she's what some might call overly-dramatic (but isn't that all tween girls?). I can see so much of my ten-year-old self in her, and I'm sure everyone will be able to relate to Darcy in one way or another.

I first saw Laura Dockrill during a talk at the British Library about children's literature, and it was her enthusiasm about books, especially those she read during her childhood, that really made her stand out. (Okay, her neon pink tights may have helped with that as well.) She was such a fascinating speaker that it only made sense to check out her work, which is how I was introduced to Darcy Burdock.

The books are written from Darcy's point of view, in Darcy's manner of speaking and way of thinking. It can take some getting used to, but it's worth it as Dockrill has perfectly captured youth in this character. Darcy is made more interesting by her ability to write creative stories that relate to her life and even provides illustrations. It's a difficult feat for an author to have a character who writes, and also include the character's stories within a book, but with Darcy it only seems natural and necessary.

In the second installment, Hi So Much sees Darcy enter the Big School, where everything is different. It encompasses the difficulties of the tween age: whether or not you can be best friends with a member of the opposite sex, how to cope with life when tragedy strikes, and how there are always people you can depend on, even when you don't expect it. But most importantly, even with all the ups and down dramas of Darcy's life, her reaction is realistic of a ten-year-old. You can only sympathise with all her pains and take pleasure in her joys. The book is, quite simply, a really fun read.

What I truly loved about this book was how many people in Darcy's life would suggest she write, be it to cope with something or simply because they recognise a talent. There was no one ever pushing her too much or telling her not to, which is a wonderful reminder of how much a child can thrive if their interests are supported and they aren't regularly running into negativity. I feel any child reading about Darcy will not only appreciate everything she experiences, but also be inspired to be creative in some way. At least, this is what I can only hope, because I know that if I had read this as a ten-year-old girl, I would have wanted to be best friends with Darcy, and also wanted to write stories of my own.

Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much. publishes on the 27th of February. Buy now direct from Random House here.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

A House Without Mirrors by Mårten Sandén

I have already confessed once to enjoying a good translated book. I should also now confess that I am rapidly becoming obsessed with Pushkin Press's children's list. A House Without Mirrors is the second Pushkin Press book I've read, and it certainly won't be the last.

The story is told from the perspective of the 11-year-old Thomasine, who lives in a large house with her relatives and her dying great-aunt Henrietta. Her father spends the majority of his time caring for the elderly woman, while her aunt and uncle seem to be more interested in how to split the inheritance once Henrietta does die. Thomasine's cousins have their faults as well: vanity, shyness and trouble-making.

With a slight nod to Narnia, the children discover a wardrobe where all the mirrors in the house were hidden. Yet when they step inside, rather than being taken to another world, they are transported to another time in a mirror image of the same house.

The story is supplemented with beautiful illustrations by Moa Schulman. The style of the book itself may appear to be aimed at younger children, and while they can certainly enjoy the story, an older child and certainly an adult can appreciate the difficulty of love and grief that Thomasine and her family experience.

Translated from Swedish by Karin Altenberg and published by Pushkin Press, Mårten Sandén's A House Without Mirrors is not one to be missed. It is a fascinating look at how we all have an inner struggle, and what could happen if we only face it.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Tinder by Sally Gardner

Perhaps I'm lucky that I didn't read many fairy tales as a child. Aside from seeing the Disney versions, I never bothered with them. With two older sisters and TV shows that always referred to classic literature, I was too fixated on reading above my level by the age of 10, and completely missed out on tween and YA books. A degree in English literature got all of those classics out of my system (well, maybe not all of them), and now I've been able to rediscover the joys of fairy tales.

The funny thing about most fairy tales, though, is that they can be dark, morbid and even disturbing. Most of us are aware that the original classic fairy tales have been subjected to modern reworks that make them what Disney would classify as child-friendly. Sometimes they are scary, but it's rare to encounter one now that doesn't have a happy ending. 

Then comes Tinder, Sally Gardner's fairy tale based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinderbox. It has everything an older reader, YA or adult, could possibly want to cleanse happily-ever-after from the system: chivalry, magic, werewolves, violence, seduction and deception. The story begins shortly after our protagonist Otto escapes the horrors of war, and while recovering he meets the beautiful red-haired Safire. Once she disappears, he knows he will do anything to find and marry her. But his quest takes him to dark and mysterious places, to the land of the werewolves, where he is suddenly entangled in the magic and curses that surround Safire's family.

This book is a great read, made particularly wonderful with illustrations by David Roberts. The gorgeous design and sparing use of colour (only black, white and red), make this haunting story worth owning - even if only to look at the pictures. The design is what drew me in, and I picked it up not knowing what to expect. The story itself did surprise me: this is very much not a children's fairy tale, especially with being quite frank about Otto wanting to sleep with Safire. At the end of the book Gardner points out that she wishes there were more illustrated books published for an older audience. I certainly share the sentiment, and I hope to see more books of this nature and quality in the future. 

Monday, 3 February 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

When I first saw the cover for Eleanor & Park I wasn’t sure it was for me. It’s not that I’m put off by romance; I just tend not to pick up a book that is purely based around a relationship. But I bought it on impulse due to the Waterstones “buy one get one half off” dilemma that I almost always have in Waterstones. The title had just been given a Printz Honor Award so it was fresh in my mind at the book shop the other week, and I’m pleased to say this wasn’t like any other teen romance title I’ve read before. In fact, it’s one of the most refreshing.

Eleanor has just arrived at a new school. She’s moved back in with her mother and step-father after being kicked out of their house previously. She’s chubby, has flaming red hair and a strange sense of style due to being restricted to thrift-shop buys and hand-me-downs. She is not the sort of person who you would expect to be a love interest, but that’s what happen when Park lets her sit with him on the bus. At first, Park isn’t too sure about Eleanor, and she doesn’t seem too fond of him. But when he notices her reading his comic books during their bus ride, they start to interact more, and eventually have a conversation.

This book is possibly the best I’ve read in capturing how it really feels to be a teenager falling in love for the first time. It’s awkward, it’s exciting and everything suddenly seems so different. Just holding someone’s hand is shocking and thrilling, but eventually not enough. The story is split to follow both Eleanor and Park’s perspectives. And while their relationship drives the story forward, the horrors of Eleanor’s family slowly unravel and start to affect every aspect of her life, even when she tries to keep them separate.

This is an incredibly touching story and well worth all the praise it’s received. It is easy to forget how you felt with your first love, but also amazing how easily those feelings come back when reading this book. (I admit to having several moments of grinning and feeling like a giddy teenager again.) Rainbow Rowell has done an incredibly job with Eleanor & Park, giving us a well-written story that perfectly displays the emotions and struggles of both teenage love and difficult family life.

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell

After looking at Chris Riddell as an illustrator recently, I thought it would be fun to look at him as an author as well, especially as he has now been named the writer in residence at Book Trust. I have to say, I’m thrilled with Book Trust’s choice and recognition of Chris Riddell’s immense talent as both an author and illustrator. And he quite rightly won the Costa Children’s Book prize of 2013 for his brilliantly clever Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse.

Goth Girl is clearly written for adults to enjoy as they read to their children. It is a gothic novel written for children, but the text has many puns, references to literary works, characters as well as parodies to keep adults amused as well.

The story itself is about Ada Goth, the daughter of famous poet Lord Goth, who seems to want little to do with his daughter since her mother died. They live in Ghastly-Gorm Hall where Ada has no friends and very little social interaction with anyone, until the day when the ghost of a mouse appears in her bedroom. As Ada tries to determine why the mouse was killed in a trap, she begins to encounter the other children who are working within her house, and together they discover a disturbing plan for Lord Goth’s annual indoor hunt.  

The plot itself is rather simple, but the book’s charm comes from the wittiness of the text and drawings. Like all of his work as an illustrator, Chris Riddell allows his illustrations to provide another element to the story, rather than treating them as supplementary. It is more obvious in this book where he has been both author and illustrator, where he is fully in control of the world he has created. It’s beautiful, clever and is certain to make you at least grin at all the clever references and plays on words.

Pan Macmillan have put a lot of love into producing this title, not holding back on the production value. The purple sprayed edges, hardback binding and ribbon marker are enticing and just a preview of the quality of the illustrations inside. It’s wonderful to see a book that is high quality in both production and content be recognised by Costa, and it’s even better to see Book Trust bringing an author/illustrator in as their writer in residence. There will be another Goth Girl title, and I look forward to seeing what Chris Riddell brings us next.