Children’s and YA books – a short homage!

So, the Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize shortlist has just been announced. I’m not familiar with many of this year’s nominated titles, so there’s some homework for me.

It’s nothing new to declare oneself as an adult who enjoys reading children’s and/or YA books. It’s cool, zeitgeisty and inclusive – ignore all the critics who say that it’s indicative of a juvenile tendency in today’s troubled millennials and their desire to regress; I reckon you are free to adore Will Self and Wolf Hall and Twilight and Michael Morpurgo in equal measure (just like you can enjoy both Balzac and Sex and the City). Why limit yourself to a particular subsection of culture, or earnestly avoid anything seen as ‘low’ art? And anyway, as much cleverer people than me have said, good children’s writing is good writing.

There exists a whole slew of very funny blogs aimed at adult readers of children’s or YA books: too many to list here, but even then it was only the other day that I discovered the delights of the brilliant Book Riot (which features posts focusing on such vitally important debates as JK Rowling’s alleged ‘mistake’ over Ron and Hermione and, even more crucially, which YA character has the most husband potential (I could think of a few more to add to their list, not least Wolf from Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes but you know, that might risk GIVING AWAY MY AGE)).

Tiger Eyes cover

I love recommending things to younger relatives – I aspire to be a sort of older cousin-come-geektastic-book-dispensing-fairy – and I love in turn hearing what they’re into. Haven’t heard their thoughts on the Waterstone’s list as yet, but it got me thinking about what I’d put if I had to sketch out my own, all-time favourites list. Not that any such list could ever be representative, or complete! But right now, off the top of my head, I’d go for:

Picture books

Hairy McClary’s Rumpus at the Vet by Lynley Dodd and David Tennant. For the character of Noodle the Poodle alone.

Dogger by Shirley Hughes. Made me want to be a better sibling in a very sweet and non-didactic way.

Dear Daddy by Phillippe Dupasquier. My own Dad once worked away and this was when I first understood that sometimes we read to find solace: a character has usually been there before you.

The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it was None of his Business by Werner Holzwarth. A mystery, involving various kinds of POO! Does it get better??

Fiction for 5-12-year-olds

Kitty Slade Book 2 cover

Frozen in Time by Ali Sparkes – this is FAB, the stuff children dream of. A brother and sister discover a time capsule buried in their garden – which happens to be a rather large underground chamber containing two cryogenically-frozen children from the 1950s! Cue fish-out-of-water-style mayhem as the two children abruptly enter the 21st century. Political incorrectness and culture shock – thought-provoking as well as funny.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper. Shakespeare and time-travel! A determined but traumatised young lad named Nat is about to have the adventure of a lifetime playing Puck at the Globe. And it has the most beautiful, meaningful ending: ‘One day I’ll write thee an airier Robin Goodfellow…’ We know Nat is going to grow up and be a wonderful actor. And play Ariel in The Tempest, just as he was promised by Shakespeare himself…

Room 13 by Robert Swindells. Read it in year 3, 4, 5, and possibly again in Year 6. And yet again when I led a children’s drama club and we performed the stage version. So y’see, Whitby was synonymous with darkness for me long before I read Dracula or even Robin Jarvis’ The Whitby Witches. Still find myself searching for the Crow’s Nest hotel and ‘the eye that sleeps by day.’ Swindells is massively underrated.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. This was one of those books that I read as a child and completely forgot the title, and had to google all sorts of things before I refound it all these years later. Thank you, internet. So good to know the book’s still out there. Wonderful, moving, US-set coming-of-age story.

The Kitty Slade Series by Fiona Dunbar. A girl who can see ghosts – and blogs about it. Makes growing up just that bit more problematic. Book 2, Fire and Roses is probably my favourite, not least for the clever ways it uses events and real historical figures of the 18th century to create a twisty tale that involves some fun code-cracking.

Teens/Young Adult

The Geekhood books

WOAH, STOP. WAY TOO MANY TO LIST. It’s no use – it’s going to have to be a future post. I’ll just say though that I really loved two of last year’s Waterstone’s nominees, Andy Robb’s Geekhood and Annabel Pitcher’s Ketchup Clouds (which went on to win). And I constantly find my *relatively* new children’s/YA ‘crushes’ (John Green, Meg Rosoff, Maggie Stiefvater, Kevin Brooks, Patrick Ness, Jenny Downham) competing with the ‘old guard’ (Anne Fine, Phillip Pullman, Robert Swindells (for the compelling and more adult Staying Up), Judy Blume, Louise Rennison (for Georgia Nicholson and her nunga-nungas, of course), Jan Mark, Jaqueline Wilson, Dick King-Smith…) Well, not competing, but jostling with them perhaps – some of the ‘old guard’ authors remain as popular as ever, others less so. I want to bring them back…

How I Live Now


Books for February – wind, rain and ghosts

Rain, rain, go away. Yes, February wouldn’t be February without some rainy days. But at the moment, if I walk to certain areas of Oxford, it’s like entering a surreal, almost apocalyptic landscape. Strange lakes besiege the city. And we’ve got off relatively lightly, I know. Not like these poor folks.

Water, water, everywhere

If you’re a sucker for pathetic fallacy like me, and sometimes like the novelty of reading books that chime with the seasons, it feels apt right now to choose books where characters do battle with the elements and struggle to survive in what often seems a bleak, grey, inhospitable England (no, I’m not in the mood for reading about exotic foreign climes at the moment – it’ll just remind me how far away summer is).


I confess to always feeling a bit underwhelmed by Penelope Fitzgerald, even though she’s a doyen of British literature and I should probably try more of her books. I found Offshore, her Booker winner, rather bizarre tonally and I don’t like the way she does children – Tilda and Martha just don’t sound like children, unless that’s the point. BUT her descriptions of this liminal little society living in houseboats on Battersea Reach in the 60s (‘creatures neither of firm land nor water’) and the river, the way it moves and looks, and the constant battle against the rising tide, storms and other threats to leaking crafts, are evocative and memorable. Fairweather people are adrift here, and even the most hardy barge-dwellers are at the mercy of the river’s whims. You could even say that water wins out in the end…

The Elements vs Woman. Elements 1, Woman 0…

However much the constant rain is driving you to distraction, just thank your stars you’re not the narrator of Joanna Kavenna’s Come to the Edge. Think you’re battling the elements? You know nothing! Welcome to life aboard the ultra-eccentric Cassandra White’s farm in Cumbria. Wind! Rain! Cold! Back-breaking physical labour! And all that still isn’t as bad as…the Thunderbox!!

Come to the Edge cover

You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean – and please do read it, because it is an absolute scream.

The hapless, nameless narrator, sick of her suburban lifestyle, dull office job, endless rounds of IVF and philandering husband, answers an ad to help a widow with a ‘sprawling property’ in the ‘idyllic’ Lake District. Ho hum. She is quickly put to work on the maniacal White’s entirely sustainable farm (because Cassandra is opposed to paying for utilities, which would be propping up the commercial conduits of the nouveau riche aka ‘the perverts’, in her view). I loved the way Kavenna hilariously skewers any eco-ideals about sustainable living and all it involves (ever tried actually living on quinoa? Or milking a goat?). Our nameless, pliant narrator (not unlike the one in Rebecca – and the similarities don’t end there) then becomes embroiled in White’s mad, bad, bonkers social enterprise scheme – breaking into holiday homes and resettling locals in them. Kavenna is pitch-perfect in her send-up of so many things: the banality of office jobs (‘No RSI for you, you sinner’), the type of people who own holiday homes, and Cassandra’s anarchical plans for the revolution. Through Cassandra, the book enters the have-and-have-nots debate (anyone sceptical of George Osborne’s claims that we are ‘better off’ would enjoy this book; it’s even been hailed as a ‘state-of-the-nation’ novel) but this is no political manifesto – as others have identified, Kavenna does not come down on any one side. Enjoy the anarchical black humour and merciless satirising of the way we live now.

Stories for the dark and the cold

Here in my corner of Blightly, snow has been forecast a few times and has yet to make its appearance. But snow is nothing compared to the dark. In the Arctic, when winter descends, you know about it – we’re talking months of endless darkness. On these dark nights, with the promise of spring and lighter evenings still miles off, I can’t think of a better ghost story than Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, which I read roughly around this time last year.

Dark matter cover

Centred on an expedition to the remote island of Gruhuken in the Arctic, the story follows Jack, a penniless, aspiring explorer who signs up for the trip of his life. But once the team have reached Gruhuken, circumstances cause all Jack’s fellow explorers to leave the island, one by one, until Jack is left to man the research station alone. Which would be fine – except it seems he’s not alone on the island. OH! This a masterly ghost story. It’s a slip of a book; sparsely, tightly told and rightly ambiguous about what Jack is experiencing on the island, surrounded by frozen sea and darkness. The clues are there, but everything is understated and slipped in so softly and insidiously as to create a growing sense of dread. The Arctic landscape, as you can imagine, is hugely important to the story and its sense of place – interestingly, Paver herself has visited the Arctic several times. If the promised snows do come, and the streets acquire that kind of hushed, deathly calm that only comes with a heavy snowfall, I’ll reread this. But you should read it anyway. With the lights turned off, if you’re well hard. PS. And oh my, there’s going to be a film.