Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ghost Hawk, by Susan Cooper

Ghost Hawk is a beautiful and heartbreaking story, powerful in it’s telling. I didn’t expect to be so swept up by Susan Cooper’s writing, so transported to this lost world, or to become so emotionally involved with the characters and the history. It is tragic and poignant; it made my eyes burn, anger seep to the surface of my skin, and my heart ache.

Little Hawk is nearly eleven when his father takes him deep into the forest and leaves him there with just the clothes on his back, a knife, bow and arrows, and a tomahawk. Hawk must survive, alone, through three hard months of winter, fending for himself against the wild and the weather. When he returns – if he returns - he will be a man.

We see through Little Hawk’s eyes as he looks for shelter, food and his Manitou – his spirit guide. He faces off with wolves and deer, freezes through storms, and nearly drowns in a lake. But this is only the beginning of his story: when he returns from his sojourn, Little Hawk must remain strong and brave in the face of terrible loss; a loss that only scratches the surface of what is to follow in the coming years.

This is an incredible book. Through Little Hawk’s way of life, Susan Cooper makes us feel a strong connection to the world, to the land and the animals, to Hawk’s people and to his past, the echoes of the generations that came before him and the echoes of the generations to come behind. But past and future echoes are quickly silenced by the arrival of the colonists: this is the 1600s, and the whites from across the oceans have arrived in force.

At first, colonists and natives help each other, and it seems as if they will be able to live alongside one another, but soon everything is cut short, the differences between the two populations as stark as the contrast between the beginning of Ghost Hawk and the chapters that follow in part two and beyond.

“In this world, one small thing leads to another small thing, and they twine within time to cause events, both good and terrible,” Hawk tells us.

Early on, Little Hawk is befriended by John Wakeley, a little boy a couple of years Hawk’s junior. John doesn’t think of Hawk as being any different to himself, but he’s surrounded by people who think otherwise: when he tries to challenge those around him, when he tries to highlight their hypocrisy, he’s shunned and shut down. But John is determined and brave and seeks to find a way to live on the terms that he believes are right, to hold to the truth of a memory that haunts him. What does the future hold? Can he make things right?

At times, the history tied up in Little Hawk’s story made me feel almost physically sick: the attitudes of many settlers towards Little Hawk’s people, their assumptions made about them because they don’t conform to the white interpretation of civilization, the uncaring dismissal of their rights and beliefs. It’s disgusting and, from what I can tell, things don’t seem to be much better even today. America is a country built on blood and murder, theft and lies, the native nation brought to its knees, destroyed and gutted by white arrogance. No matter how much trust Little Hawk’s people try to put in the settlers, it is mostly only repaid in distrust.

Wise Little Hawk watches it all as it passes before his eyes:

“This was how they thought of our mother the earth, these white men: as a place full of things, put here by their God for them to use.”

Ghost Hawk is a beautiful rendering of the tragic and heartbreaking effects of colonisation on Native American peoples. I am so happy that it has been shortlisted for the 2014 Carnegie Medal, because otherwise I probably would never have picked it up. It will make you cry and rage at the injustice, at the loss of all that history, of what our ancestors did these people. Susan Cooper’s storytelling is exquisite and powerful, evocative and emotional; I can’t recommend it enough, for teenagers and adults alike.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

This Is Not My Hat, by Jon Klassen

I love Jon Klassen’s first ‘hat’ book, I Want My Hat Back, the simple tale of a bear who is trying to track down his lost headwear. The bear is so sweet (‘I love my hat,’ he tells us), yet edgy too (check out the ending), while the subtlety of the story and the way it’s told is pure genius - and it never ceases to be funny. Honestly, no matter how many times I read I Want My Hat Back (and that’s a lot), I always laugh.

For This Is Not My Hat, Klassen has taken all the same elements from the first book, refined them, boiled them down and simplified them even further, creating a book that is just as tongue-in-cheek, funny and clever as the first, and with a similar concept to I Want My Hat Back and yet simultaneously entirely different.

Little Fish has, ahem, stolen a hat. The Big Fish he took it from was asleep at the time, and Little Fish is pretty sure Big Fish won’t notice, but just to be on the safe side, he’s going to go over here and hide in these big tall reeds where he’s sure nobody will find him...

The brilliance of this book, for me, lies in the characterization: Big Fish through the drawings; Little Fish through his words. Only Little Fish speaks, but the fabulous illustrations let you know exactly what Big Fish is thinking – all through, pretty much, just Big Fish’s single visible eye.

It’s just… well, brilliant. How Klassen creates so much character in such a simple way is really extraordinary. Not a lot actually happens in the pictures – it’s mostly just black water, a fish, and some plants – and yet it conveys so much all at the same time. This is combined with Little Fish’s words, which tell a story slightly contradictory to the pictures: ‘He probably won’t wake up for a long time,’ says Little Fish above a picture of Big Fish who is very much awake.

The silence at the end of the story – which tells you all you need to know – perfectly reflects the fact that pictures often speak louder than words, and that when it comes to telling stories, less if often more, something that Klassen clearly understands well. This wonderful ability is reflected by a rare double nomination for the 2014 Kate Greenaway Medal: This Is Not My Hat along with The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket but illustrated by Jon Klassen. I like the work that Klassen has done with other writers, but the techniques he applies to his own stories are exemplary, showing his wit and understanding of the world and how people think.

This Is Not My Hat is succinct, clever, funny and immensely enjoyable no matter how many times you read it, a picture book that is as much for adults as it is for children. My (metaphorical) vote is cast.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

Disaster has struck: Duncan’s colouring crayons have gone on strike. They are missing in action, gone into hiding, leaving behind just a pile of letters detailing their grievances.

Pink is sick of being thought of as a ‘girly’ colour, Black would like to be used for more than just drawing outlines, Orange and Yellow are having a show-down about who should be used to colour the sun, while Blue is tired out and would really like a rest, please. What can Duncan do to stop the arguing and make all the crayons happy again?

The Day the Crayons Quit (written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers) is a lovely idea to get both adults and children thinking outside the box. Why have we stereotyped our crayons? Why do we - by habit? by social decree? – only use certain colours for certain things? Who says that art has to be based directly on reality?

This is a really simple idea, very effectively done. The bulk of the story constitutes, on one side of the page, a letter written by the crayon in question, with crayoned drawings on the opposite page demonstrating the letter’s grievances. Many of the drawings are wonderfully child-like, and are accompanied by a characterized image of crayon itself either looking huffy or tired or grumpy, depending on why they’re upset. Who knew you could make crayons look emotional?

I also like how the letters have been written out in real letter form with crayon and then photographed for the book, showing contrast between the letter and the rest of the image, as well as blending together the words of the story into the illustrative style. I think it’s probably quite unique.

So how does Duncan solve the problem and get he’s crayons talking not just to each other again, but to him too? Well, by colouring things in a little differently, of course. Turn to the penultimate page to see the result, which is a bright and eclectic image of lots of different things all happening at once, including a pink dinosaur, a white sea-cat, a black rainbow, and multi-coloured hearts. Something for everyone. Brilliant.

Time to get your colouring crayons out and see what you can come up with that is outside the box…

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Child's Elephant, by Rachel Campbell-Johnston

Bat lives in the village of Jambula. He spends his days herding his small band of cattle, running errands for his grandmother, playing wrestling games with the other village boys in the evenings. One day, out with his cattle, he and his friend Muka find Meya, a baby elephant, orphaned by poachers, collapsed and starving in the scrub.

Meya is welcomed into village life, for elephants are considered a sacred animal - close to humans in the way they form friendships and families and loyalties, but close to the spirits too – and she is everything to Bat: constant friend and companion, as he helps raise her and feed her and she joins him out on the savannah with his cattle. It’s a hard life, but an idyllic sort of one too, with few concerns but the next day and the turning of the seasons.

Except soon rumours of a terrible child army reach the village, tales of refugees and roads not being safe to travel. And when Lobo returns to Jambula, the cruel son of the medicine woman, a boy who knows only how to boast and bully, he is fascinated and intrigued by Bat and his relationship with Meya. Does he want Meya for his own? What will he do if he can’t get her?

The Child’s Elephant is a story of friendship and survival and hope. Bat and Muka’s world will soon be turned upside down, their minds and bodies pushed to the very limits, but friendship, a belief in what is right and wrong and – most importantly – hope, will help them to survive.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston seamlessly combines a tale of quiet village life, an edgy co-existence with African wildlife, with the brutality and fear and the ravaging of communities exhorted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army as, from a caring wildlife tale we are transported with Bat and Muka to a brutal training camp. Here, Bat is coerced into a place where he must betray those whom he holds most dear, the terrible choice of Muka or Meya. How can he choose? What can he do? And when they make a run for it, it seems that all will be against them: the people, the land, the season. Will they ever find home again? What will they have to sacrifice along the way?

This a very accomplished young novel, the balance between the wildlife and the African plains and the all-encompassing forests of the army perfectly rendered. There are some potentially difficult scenes: Bat’s encounter with the poachers in the opening chapter, his and Muka’s capture by the rebels, the brutality of the camp, their friend Gulu’s tale of his own capture. But Campbell-Johnston writes them with the utmost care, keeping me on the edge of my seat, but without unnecessary angst. And she summons Bat’s life to the page wonderfully: the sights and sounds of the land around him, the link between him and Meya, his cares and concerns, the changes that are wrought upon him.

Several years are covered during the book, both quiet ones and difficult ones, but there’s not a dull moment and everything that takes place does so for a reason; everything will be called upon again in later chapters, will take Bat and Muka on their journey forward into adulthood. It is sad and wonderful all at once, but their care for the world around them and their friendships with Meya, with Gulu, and with each other, will see them through and into the future. Suitable for middle grade readers, I can see why The Child’s Elephant has been chosen for the 2014 Carnegie Medal shortlist; it would be a good step up particularly for anyone who likes Michael Morpurgo, or Lauren St John’s African Adventures series.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Where My Wellies Take Me, by Clare and Michael Morpurgo and Olivia Lomenech Gill

Where My Wellies Take Me kind of defies classification. It’s a story book and a poetry book and a scrap book and an art book and a picture book and a nature book. It’s a beautiful book that you can sit down and read all in one go or can dip in and out of over days, weeks, months and years, returning to look at that special drawing or re-read that favourite poem, or just to flip through and appreciate whenever you wish.

At its heart, for me, this book is a celebration of nature and the British countryside, interweaving the story of a young girl, Pippa, as she explores the local countryside - following wherever her wellies take her – with poems and rhymes and ditties that evoke the seasons and animals and Pippa’s wandering nature, all alongside and intermingled with a profusion of sketches and drawings and paintings. This is all put together in a scrapbook style so that each aspect overlaps one another, with foldout pages, acetate inlays, hidden corners, and secrets to uncover.

The illustrator and book designer, Olivia Lomenech Gill, has been shortlisted for the 2014 Kate Greenaway Medal for the drawings and wonderful patchwork layout that make this book into the wonder that it is. Every single page has something different to offer, the detail and the care exquisite. From the three-stage sketch of a heron taking flight, chickens pecking at hay in the farmer’s yard, cows lowing and chewing the cud, and the sleeping valley giant to four-page wassail panorama, it makes you want to step into the page and be there for yourself. Lift the lid on the Blue Cross match book to reveal the beetle tucked inside, open the shed door to see who is sleeping in amongst the coals, resist the urge to wipe charcoal from your fingers. This work definitely matches the quality and ingenuity of 2012 Kate Greenaway winner Jim Kay (A Monster Calls).

Pippa visits the lambs, talks to bumblebees, breathes in the hedgerow flowers, checks the time by blowing dandelion clocks. She trogs across Farmer Yelland’s fields, greeting his animals, and is offered a ride on the farmer’s pony, Captain. It’s got an old-time feel to it which is encapsulated by the pictures: the farmer’s tractor is clearly vintage, there’s a distant image of an aproned woman carrying pails on a shoulder yoke, the farmer is turning the soil in the fields by hand, an old red telephone box stands on the village green. Indeed, in their introduction, Clare and Michael Morpurgo reference the best times of their childhoods, he wandering the marshes and sea walls of Bradwell, she tramping Devonshire lanes in search of lizards and slow-worms and this idyllic sense of a time lost, a childhood viewed through rose-tinted glass, pervades the pages.

Are these things lost to us? Or are they sealed behind grown-up eyes and modern technology? I think perhaps it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. Certainly the countryside around us is much changed in the last fifty, sixty years, but there is still plenty of quiet beauty to be appreciated once we put down our mobile phones, get out of our cars, put on our wellies, and take a little time out to wander down a tucked away country lane, peer in the hedges and listen to the birdsong. As a ‘country lass’ all of this is on my doorstep, if I stop to look at it - something that the many city children don’t always get the opportunity to taste. This is why the Morpurgos set up their charity, Farms for City Children, enabling thousands of children over the last thirty years to spend a week being farmers, providing a little piece of idyll for each of them:

“They feed the sheep and calves, muck out the horses, dig up potatoes. They wear wellies almost all the time, and in among their tasks they have the freedom to explore and enjoy the countryside around them, just as we did.”

Where My Wellies Take Me is something that little bit special; a book that any book lover, young or old, will surely love to have on their bookshelves. And the blending of the images with story and poetry, the interactive nature of many of the pages within the book, make it a perfect way to introduce younger readers to poetry: because there is so much to look at, because there is story and nature, it is easy to get sucked in, to want to investigate each page. And maybe it will inspire the creation of their own scrapbooks by collecting leaves, making accounts of beetles they meet when out walking, copying out poems or phrases that resonate with them, gradually building up a picture of their own lives and interests and everyday surroundings, creating their own piece of idyll.

Monday, 5 May 2014

All the Truth That's in Me, by Julie Berry

All the Truth That’s in Me is a really extraordinary novel. It’s immensely readable yet quietly intense, a story of communication and love and judgement, and with one of the most unusual but remarkable voices I’ve ever come across, written sort of simultaneously in first and second perspective (‘I’ as well as ‘you’).

It is four years since Judith was abducted, two years since she returned. She cannot speak, half her tongue cut out, and so she cannot tell the town, her mother, her younger brother, what happened to her. She can only watch you, Lucas - the man she’s loved since you were a boy - from a distance and silently pour out her thoughts and fears and dreams.

This is Roswell Station, a settler’s town heavily ruled by the laws of God; it’s a tight community, but one that can easily be shattered. And when three Homelander ships are spied on the horizon, the glass looks set to break: since the fire, there isn’t enough arsenal to properly defend against these raiders. But as the men and boys are summoned to war, Judith remembers: the hut hidden in the hills, the basement where she was kept, the explosives stacked like a wall. And so she does the one thing she never thought she’d do: she returns and makes a bargain: her life for yours.

But this is only the beginning. Because when Judith’s kidnapper reveals himself to the town, a set of events is begun that she could never have predicted, events that dig up the past and shed new light on things people thought they understood. Gradually, in more ways than one, Judith regains her voice. And as Lucas begins to notice, so the town notices him. Conclusions are drawn, traps are set and just as a happy ending seems to be within reach it is snatched away again. Or is it? Can Judith find a way to turn the town’s judgment around?

I really can’t even begin to do justice to this book. It’s a romance and a mystery, the story of a town and of a girl, it’s empowering and tense. It’s written in a timeless sort of way that suggests 17th or 18th century, but reminded me most strongly of the M. Night Shyamalan film, The Village, I think because of the level of purity expected by Roswell Station’s citizens, because the worship, although it runs through the town’s veins like blood, is mostly unspecified.

Julie Berry’s technique of writing in both first and second perspective is something I've never come across before; it's both extremely daring and extremely effective. Additionally, her style of breaking up the four ‘books’ into multiple small chapters makes it exceedingly readable, especially as you just have to find out what will happen next; and the language, the plot building, the characterisation - the everything - is exquisite.

Of all the excellent books on this year's Carnegie Medal shortlist (I’ve currently read five of the eight), this is, so far, the standout title for me. It’s quiet yet has great intent, an amazing voice, every page and twist of the plot explosive; I had no idea how it was going to end, whether things would work or whether the town’s judgments and assumptions would override their humanity. For anyone who thinks that young adult books are all trash, all they need to do is pick up All the Truth That’s in Me.

Will Lucas see Judith? Why does her mother hate her so? What nasty game is teacher Rupert Gillis playing? Who is following Judith, prowling around her house at night? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what really happened to the other missing girl, Lottie? Judith must reclaim her voice, and reclaim what was lost to her and what was lost to you. Truly excellent.