Monday, March 26, 2012

A review: Peepo!

I have not finished The Undrowned Child, but rather than rush to finish the book I decided I would have a crack at reviewing some picture books. Living outside of an anglophone community, whenever I have a chance to buy picture books I do. They fit quite nicely into the suitcase and aren't heavy. The problem is I never know what to buy. Book blogs (or rather the ones I read) are full of YA and Children's books. So when faced with shelves and shelves of the books and no idea what to buy I revert to type. In other words I buy books I loved as a kid, or stuff that was popular when I started teaching cough cough years ago.

Title: Peepo
Author: Janet & Allan Ahlberg
Published: Puffin Books 1981 
Synopsis: PEEPO! has become a classic for babies and toddlers. It follows a baby through the day in a style full of wit, charm and ingenuity. A series of holes peeping through to the next page leads the child on to the next stage in the day, giving a hint of what is to come. An original book that has long delighted young children - and their parents!


Pictures: So the Ahlberg books were popular when I started teaching (which I hasten to add was NOT in 1981) with their Jolly Postman books. I already had a Jolly postman book, and I figured this would be a good buy. The pictures in this are amazingly detailed and tell a completely different story to the one referred to in the synopsis above. The pictures give us an insight into another era and each time I look through the book I see something different. Despite the intricate detail of the pictures they don't detract from the text. 

Text: Call me an old traditionalist, but I love the predictability of the text and that the rhythm leads you to say 'Peepo' in such a way that it's like playing a game of peekaboo. Also predictable text means the bubba knows exactly when the: Peepo! moment is coming. The words and sentences work perfectly so that there's no stumbling as you read aloud.There's about 400 words in the book, so when you think that the tendency nowadays for a picture book is about 500, this is quite a lot. But, until I just counted the text it's never struck me as a lot and yet we've been reading this book since the bubba was a baby. 

Rereadability: So given that Bubba is now three and almost a half, the rereadability factor is immense. She loved the pictures, she loved looking through the hole and seeing what she would discover on the next page. We have the board book version, so I can tell you it lasts a good long time despite chewing. 

The three year old test:  We're kind of getting to limit with this book as a shared read. The bubba is at the stage now where she likes a good old story and while there is plenty of story in this book, it's more in the pictures than the text, so she tends to look at it by herself now. I imagine this will become a favourite again when she is learning to read. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Savita's question

The other week I was reading this excellent blog post by Saivta Kahlan about drawing the line. I urge you to go and read it: a) because as I've mentioned before it's excellent b) I rattled off a quick witty response and c) was challenged to consider my response in more depth. If you go and read it you will see evidence of b, and c, and a, will get you thinking. Now, if you are extremely busy (and only if that is the case) Savita questioned whether there were some subjects that should be should be taboo in children's literature. 

The teacher as gatekeeper: 
A few months ago I took a couple of books home to read as the teacher felt they were not suitable for ten year olds. One of them I couldn't get into and haven't read, the other one I absolutely loved, but agreed to send on to the secondary school as there was a death at the beginning of the book, some criminals, criminal activity, rap stars and pedophiles. While I would be quite happy to let a ten year old read the book, given the complexity of the the story, the age of the characters and some of the issues in the book, I felt more kids would read it in the high school.

The parent as gatekeeper: 
One of our favourite books is: De la petite taupe qui voulait savoir qui lui avait fait sur la tête. You may know it as The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. We find it hysterical, we love the onomatopoeias and boy did we use a lot of them when in the throes of potty training. We pulled the book out at a some family do a while ago and one of the aunties was well and truly not amused because it was a book all about poo. Another one of my personal favourite's is Babette Cole's: Mummy laid an egg, but at present it's still on the top shelf (ooh er missus) of our book shelf. It will come down one day when the Frog has finished with the kamasutra like pages. 

The writer as gatekeeper: 
So far the examples I have mentioned have all involved other people as gatekeepers, but should the writer be a gatekeeper. In my current WIP, I did everything to keep my antagonist alive. I knew he had to die, but I didn't want my protagonist to be the one to kill him, and until I worked out a way for that to happen, I kept him alive. In the end it wasn't killing a character off that bothered me*, it was the main character. She could not become a killer, she's not a killer. She's pretty special, but if push comes to shove, she can't and won't kill anyone.

So after much thought and consideration I am actually in complete agreement with Savita (but you'll have to go to her post and see what I'm agreeing with), and as I mentioned in my comment I only draw the line at swearing, because as I say to the kids: we all do it, but there's a time and place and so far it hasn't found it's place in my WIP. 

* I'd just like to make it clear that I do not condone murder, the death penalty or vigilantes, but boy does it make good stories. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

A book review: Zac & The Dream Pirates

Title: Zac and The Dream Pirates
Author: Ross MacKenzie
Published: Chicken House 2010
Synopsis: Everybody dreams. That's the problem. Good dreams are sweet. Bad dreams are scary, but what happens if the worst sort of nightmares take over? Zac Wonder is about to find out. On the stroke of midnight, he is plunged into an extraordinary world on the other side of sleep. Is he still dreaming? Has he gone nuts? Or, is he really meant to save us all from vampires, werewolves and the dream pirates wh threaten to keep us awake forever.

I found this book on the librarian's desk at work and was drawn by the button that said "Glow in the dark cover". In fact later on in the week I put a couple of kids in a cupboard so they too could see the glow in the dark cover. 

Star parts: Great first page and then we turn over and it's that old chestnut: but it was all a dream, except MacKenzie doesn't ever say that and he also turns all that 'it was all a dream' thing on its head. I don't think I'll be giving too much away if I say that our dreams are real and exist in Nocturne, because that all happens in the first few chapters and by then you are hooked. As Zac discovers his grandmother's world and who he really is, so do we. There was the right mix of humour, excitement and world building. Then there was the parallel story line of Rumpous Tinn and Noelle, a girl who can make herself vanish. I really liked their story line, firstly because Tinn keeps all manner of things in his beard and secondly because Noelle goes from the ultimate wall flower (she vanishes for crying out loud) to a goblin beating heroine. Her character development is spot on. But I don't think I can say much more about her without giving the story away. 

Black clouds: The glow in the dark cover and the publisher's letter at the beginning. You see, call me a dreadful old cynic, but I find all that gimmicky (well up until Mary Kole's workshop the other week, now I understand, that if a publisher goes to the length to make your cover glow in the dark they love your book), but I see those things and the book is going to have to work just that little bit harder to win me over. Maybe it's because I'm an old fuddy duddy, but back in the day, the book just needed to have two covers and all the pages. 

 Do I recommend it: Definitely and I believe according to Mr MacKenzie's twitter feed that there will be another book, and I hope so because there are things I want to find out*. But, you know my recent beef has been series books which leave us hanging. This one doesn't, yes there is stuff that absolutely need to be found out, but we find out there is more, much more, after we got through the first book have a satisfying end. We are led into the second book during the coda of the first, just the way I like it. 

*Last week I reread my book review in borror as I realised that I had blithely given the ending away. I almost did it again this week, but notice I didn't. (I also cut the huge great big SPOILER from last week's review). 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to

BTW I took this picture on aperture setting, as the Frog 
summed it up, I took a picture instead of just pressing 
a button.
Due to my SCBWItis*, I didn't mention in advance that I was going to an event last Saturday. It was a workshop with Andrea Brown agent Mary Kole entitled: High Concept Ambitions. I'm not going to tell you too much about the content of the workshop because if you don't know it by now, Mary is about to release a book about writing for children and we got a sneak preview of a chapter. Yes, the one on concept. So what I will say is, Mary is a fun lively speaker and despite jet lag wants her writers to understand what she's talking about. If you get a chance to attend one of her sessions or webinars, do, you won't be disappointed. 

I also got a chance to have a one to one with Mary. One to one's are always great because however fabulous your crit group is (and mine is truly fantabulous) you and they get close to the work. So when I came back in on Saturday as the Frog passed me on the way out (to go watch Rugby), he asked me how it went and I replied: "Oh, I've got a bit of work to do." It's taking time, but the Frog is slowly getting to realise that a WIP is never finished (well I guess until it gets slapped between two covers and then you really have to let it go). 

Anyway, if I haven't bibbled on about this before, or you've missed it, here it comes again. Yes, I'm going to talk about cultural differences once again. Because during the course of the morning it struck me a couple of times. Firstly, at one point Mary mentioned that she's always reading tweets about a certain TV show that agents would love writers to turn into a book. I had never heard of the TV show (or Netflicks), but the first thing I did on Sunday morning was look up the show. The premise is all American, I couldn't even begin to get to my head round something like it because a) in the UK we don't play American football and b) whole towns aren't united around school teams the way they are in the states. So that's my bestseller up the creek, hey. Secondly, as Mary pulled out my 'not more than ten pages' the instructions had been VERY VERY clear, I blushed then blinked then the light bulb went on. In France and the UK we use A4, in the States they use Letter and my 10 pages (my partial and synopsis) had gone to 12! Duh! Yes, it was facepalm time, because let's face it, it's not very difficult to change a page size on word is it? Facepalm moment number three was my spelling. I'd used UK. Despite being very very familiar with US spelling and making sure every Monday that when there is a difference students are given both options, did I think to connect that to my own writing? No. Look, I'll 'fess up now, as I did to Mary, I'm not considering submitting to the US, but if YOU are and you're not from the US, look how many potholes I fell into and that was before she even got into my story. The final thing Mary pointed out was the voice. It was a very important point because my main is meant to appeal to girls and be cool and amazing, so if she is sounding like an old fuddy duddy that needs to change toot sweet. But her brother is old fashioned and a little at odds with the changing world and I went to great trouble to make his voice 'wrong' for this time. And it wasn't an issue with the British agent in December, but it was with Mary. 

So, basically if, like me, you don't live in the UK or the US or Australia (basically not an English speaking country) and you're wondering where to submit: 
1) Make sure you get the page size right for the country you are submitting to;
2) get the spelling right, and;
3) go for the country where your voice is right, because all the countries I mentioned speak English, but it isn't the same English. 

*def: I mention I'm going to a SCBWI event and get struck down by some disease ending in 'itis'. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

A book review: Dark Inside

Title: Dark Inside
Author: Jeyn Roberts
Published: Macmillan Children's Books (2 Sep 2011)

Synopsis: Moments after several huge earthquakes shake every continent on Earth, something strange starts happening to some people. Michael can only watch in horror as an incidence of road rage so extreme it ends in two deaths unfolds before his eyes; Clementine finds herself being hunted through the small town she has lived in all her life, by people she has known all her life; and Mason is attacked with a baseball bat by a random stranger. An inner rage has been released and some people cannot fight it. For those who can, life becomes an ongoing battle to survive - at any cost! Since mankind began, civilizations have always fallen - now it's our turn!

This book certainly got me thinking. Before I was even a quarter of the way through I started to examine all the disaster films I have ever seen, and being born in the 70's that makes quite a lot. But my quest was to identify what made me enjoy them, or like the absolutely dreadful Deep Impact made me want to cheer with joy as practically all the mains got blown or washed away. That's right you got it, character. You have to care that Robert Neville in I am Ledgend makes it, hell you even have to shed tears when Sam the dog dies (What? Sorry, you didn't know that?) And then there is one more element that has to be just right. There has to be some little glimmer of hope. Now be it Sean of the Dead or 28 days later, each of these films raised the stakes so it seemed like there was no way out and then provided a little bit of hope. The Road by Cormac MacCarthy also does this brilliantly. So after analysing the disaster genre - and let me get this straight, I've got a pretty wide ranging definition of this genre - I felt I could then get to grips with this book.
Star parts: And Roberts pretty much sticks to the formula. It's a nice sunny day, nobody suspects anything can possibly go wrong, then boom bad things start to happen. The first chapter is particularly interesting, because something bad has already happened, but we are so in Mason's head, taken over by his feelings of grief and numbness, that we don't even realise that bad things are happening. Then Aries is on the bus, what can go wrong on a bus?  Well, (touch wood, despite two years in Mexico and always being in a car or asleep when there were tremors), I don't know what an earthquake feels like, but Roberts description is brilliant. Clementine's nightmare is even worse because she finds herself completely alone and by the time we get to Michael we just know that the beep is going to hit the fan. Throughout the book Roberts action and horror scenes didn't miss a beat, but in true disaster style, at different points throughout the book the characters are saved through selfless acts of kindness. Yay. 

Black clouds: The biggest problem I had was that I didn't find the characters different enough. Aries was in a group whereas Clementine was mostly on her own. Likewise Michael was mostly in a group, whereas Mason mostly went solo. I also found that having the four characters was maybe one too many. The chapters tended to follow a formula, so that by the fourth character the element of surprise was gone. OK, then you may have heard this beef before, but this is part of a series, so although there was that element of hope at the end, the bigger thing, the 'nothing', for me it wasn't addressed enough. 

 Do I recommend it: I think I may have mentioned that as a teenager I overdosed on Clive Barker and Stephen King, so I think Roberts has hit upon what teenagers like to read and she's written it well. So if you are a teenager who likes to read scary, zombie (who are not zombie's) like thing than this is the book for you. Me, I just get scared *runs away screaming waving my hands over my head* 

Oh hang on *runs back from the far distance pretending nothing happened at all*. Before I go, I'd like to say a big thank you to Becky at The Bookette as I won the book at her blog giveaway. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Just like a woman

Today is International Women's Day and the Frog asked why isn't there an International Men's Day. So for all you men out there who really need to ask the question. Here's a quote by Joss Whedon created Buffy:

Something happened to me. In the past my main characters were boys. I think it was the tomboy in me, but there we go they tended to be boys. And then I gave birth to a girl and now I write girls. I write girls like me. Girls happier in trousers than skirts, in doc martens than high heels, and who use lipsyl rather than lipstick. I try not to make them as clumsy and uncoordinated as me. I think that I'm trying to write girls that my bubba will one day aspire to be (so they have to have some flaws otherwise they won't be realistic), because my bubba doesn't have my role models. When I grew up I lived in an upstairs flat. Three amazing women lived downstairs. It's not just the fact that they all lived to be over a hundred that made them amazing. What made them amazing was that each of them nurtured and developed different aspects of who I am today. The middle one was a bit of a gossip and didn't care that Boy George wore a dress. The oldest taught me to be quiet and listen. The youngest took me to the Puffin Book Club Fair, the Natural History museum and the Science Museum, she encouraged me to travel, chided me for not keeping up my French and was a bit of a tyrant if truth be told. The youngest one is still going at 101 years old and to her and her sisters I dedicate this post. 

This year the theme of International Women's day is: Empower Rural Women - End Hunger and Poverty. 

And remember don't ask why we need International Women's Day, just honour your women any way you can. Oh and do tell me who are your strong women? 

*Thanks Nicky Schmidt for directing me to the Joss Whedon quote. 

Monday, March 05, 2012

A book review: Reckless

Title: Reckless
Author: Cornelia Funke
Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (September 14, 2010)

Synopsis: For years, Jacob Reckless has been escaping to a hidden world. But tragedy strikes when his younger brother, Will, follows him through the portal. Now Will is infected with a curse that is quickly transforming him into a ruthless killing machine, with skin made of stone. 

In a land built on trickery and lies, Jacob will need all the wit, courage, and reckless spirit he can summon to reverse the dark spell before it's too late.

Star parts: Now unless this is the very first time you have visited this blog, you should know that I'm a bit of a Funke fan. So with that in mind I am going to try not gush and give this book an objective review. I've also read some stuff about this book and there are a few things that are different. For a start Funke wrote this one straight into English (unless I'm mistaken) with the help of her translator. Also Lionel Wigram gave her the idea and she wrote it. Straightaway this book has a different feel to her others. The language seems sparser and more direct and to the point. The chapters are shorter and we're straight into the story and the premise of the series. Jacob Reckless' father is missing and as he searches his father's study for clues, he discovers a mirror that transports him to another world. Boom. The next chapter leads us straight into the premise of this book. Jacob's brother Will followed him into the mirror world and is turning into a Goyl. Through the next chapters Funke builds the world introducing us to the history of the Goyl, and the Empress while carrying the story forward. 

Jacob is built as a rounded, if flawed character. He loves his brother, and he comes across as a bit of a super man in the mirror world, yet the fact that he abandoned his family so often is always present. His reasons for doing so are explored and it makes him a less than perfect hero. 

Will's girlfriend Clara was another character I really liked. When she ends up in the mirror world, everything is so different for her that she could fall apart, yet the hardships make her a stronger person and in a way this book is her journey in becoming that stronger person. I hope we'll see more of her. 

The story is really compelling, but unlike her other books, the second book is built into the first. While this book has an arc of its own and had a satisfying end, there WILL be more to come and there are several avenues as to where the second book will go. 

As well as the the characters I've mentioned above, Funke has done one of the things that I feel she does very well. She takes stock fairy tale characters, goblins, fairies and dwarfs and gives them her own unique take. It's a world that is at once familiar if we've read Grimm's fairy tales and yet very different. 

Black clouds: Ok, the brother Will is turning into a Goyl the whole way through the book, but I didn't feel like I got to know him very well. If anything he seemed a bit stony (haha - OK crap joke). Likewise, there were not many dimensions to Fox and I would like to get to know her better too. So, as kind of main characters I felt they could have been explored just a little bit more. 

The other thing that I supposed could be a minor quibble, but which bothered me no end is that I found all the mains too old. I spent ages, and I mean ages working out how old Jacob was. I don't want to spoil the book, but in my opinion for a YA book I found him bordering on old, yet he acted very much as a teenager, so I found that a bit difficult. 

 Do I recommend it: Can I gush now? Basically, I couldn't put the book down. I fell in love with Jacob *blushes* which is a bit embarrassing as I'm old enough to be his mother (just about) and I curse all those women who fall/fell for him in the book. I was satisfied with the end of this book, but I'm also rather excited that there is another on the way. So, yes, yes, yes I do recommend it. 

Friday, March 02, 2012

A Memory: Terracotta Turtle

Siena, Italy
As part of World Book Day yesterday, the authors over at The Edge are doing a book giveaway. Each author is giving away one of their books. Now, I'll be straight up and say that I want to win, but it would seem a bit strange if I had no competition, so go over to this post over at The Edge and follow the instructions to have a chance of winning books by Miriam Halahmy, Keren David, Bryony Pearce, Paula Rawsthorne, Sarah Grant, Savita Kalhan, Katie Dale and Dave Cousins (more about him at a later date to be announced).
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