Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Looking Out

Look at the children’s section of a bookshop anywhere else in the world and you’ll find a whole range of books by British and American writers. Children in France and Germany and Sweden have heard of Roald Dahl and Michelle Paver and Stephanie Mayer. Children everywhere have heard of JK Rowling.

But how many British children could name a writer who’s published in translation in Britain? How many British parents? I think I know a fair amount about children’s books, but only a handful of writers who don’t write first in English spring to mind immediately. True, if you gave me a list, I’d go ‘oh, of course, I forgot about him or her’ to a couple of handfuls more, but still, it’s not many.

Of course it’s not surprising that British children’s books are famous throughout the world. We in Britain have now and have had in the past an unbelievable wealth of extraordinarily talented children’s writers. And, as explained to David Almond in a fascinating BBC Radio 4 programme last year, the British publishing industry model is based on the principle of selling British books into foreign markets, a principle which isn’t so entrenched among foreign publishers.

But what are we missing? What fabulous writers will we never come across because they write in languages other than English and no one’s translated them? And while we celebrate and seek out diversity in children’s books, shouldn’t we include the diversity brought by exposure to other nations and cultures?

I’m thrilled to discover that there is one publisher, Pushkin Press who is dedicated to bringing the very best children’s books in translation to Britain. And once you’ve read all they have to offer, here are a few of my favourites.



Astrid Lindgren
Of course you’ve heard of Pippi Longstocking, the strongest girl in the world, who lives by herself in a tumbledown house, with a monkey and a horse. You’ve heard of her … but have you read the books?

Goscinny and Uderzo
Asterix the Gaul and his companions pit their wits against the might of the Roman Empire (with the aid of their magic potion). Asterix’s flawless translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, demonstrate the difference really good translation makes.


Edith Unnerstad

Oh how I loved The Saucepan Journey, Little O and The Urchin, funny stories about the Swedish Pip-Larsson family. Out of print in English, but look out for them in secondhand shops.


Erich Kästner
My favourite was Lottie and Lisa (republished as The Parent Trap by Pushkin Press in a translation by Anthea Bell), but try Emil and the Detectives and The Little Man too.

Tove Jansson

There is nothing in the world like the Moomins.

Michael Ende
Bastian falls from his unsatisfactory real life into the enchanted world of The Neverending Story, which he alone can save from destruction.


Cornelia Funke
In her Inkheart trilogy, book worlds and characters collide with the real world. Seek out her other books too, Dragon Rider, Igraine the Brave and the Mirrorworld books.

Delphine de Vigan

No and Me is the story of a girl who decides to interview a homeless teenager in Paris and ends up enmeshed in her life. It’s one of the few YA translations I’ve come across.

I’d love to hear about your favourites. I can’t help wondering if maybe there’s more of this stuff about and I’m just being blinkered.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Read-it-twice books

The Costa Prize this year got me thinking about book prizes. The Costa is an odd one. Five category winners, novel, first novel, poetry, biography and children’s book going head-to-head against each other. How’s that going to work? Surely the poetry and the children’s book are always going to lose out. Well, not always, as shown by this year’s fabulous winner, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree (see my review). But if you look at the the list of previous Costa winners, it’s clear that most of the time the children’s books are passed over. On only one other occasion has the children’s book won. And I’m ready to admit, it’s a pretty tough call asking judges to choose between the disparate adult categories, without throwing in the puzzle of how to judge a children’s book against adult books. Some judges may even be under the impression that children’s books can never measure up to adult ones (see the cringe-making quotation from the University of Kent in this blog by S F Said).

So that got me wondering what adults who judge children’s books value in them. It’s interesting to compare a book prize given by a panel of children, such as the Blue Peter Book Awards or the Children’s Book Award  (formerly the Red House Prize), with a prize given by adult writers or librarians, such as the Costa or the Carnegie. Not invariably, but often, the children will go for what, if we were talking about adult fiction, we’d call ‘popular’ fiction and the adults will go for what we might call ‘literary’ fiction, and I like to think of as read-it-twice books.

It’s those read-it-twice books that I want to talk about. They’re the ones that most children will never read on their own. Not because they’re bad, of course not. It’s because they perceive them as hard. Most children will read these books in class or because they get them as a present or because they’re all they can find in the library. If they’re lucky, a marvellous teacher or parent or librarian will guide them through the tricky bits, or persuade them to keep at it when the plot doesn’t come at them as thick and fast as they’re used to. Or they’ll come across one of these books when there’s nothing and no one else to distract them, so that they can surrender themselves to it thoroughly. These are the books full of ideas and references to things they’ve never come across before. Books that’ll make them  think and wonder about things they don’t know, and toss them out at the end a different person from the person they were before they started reading. Books that’ll make them wonder about the past or architecture or religion or the Arctic and make them reach for other books. Books that’ll never leave them. Why do I call them read-it-twice books? Because they’re deep books, books that no one’s ever going to get completely by wolfing them down breathlessly, thoughtlessly. You need to stop and think. Savour them. Or else wolf them down, but then go right back to the beginning and start again.

And what is more, these are books adults should read too, and books adults should value. They may be readable by children, but they’re books with plenty to say to adults. And that’s why they win those prizes that only adults judge. And why they deserve their chance at the Costa.

Ten read-it-twice books everyone should read
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Skellig by David Almond
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Jennie by Paul Gallico
Once by Morris Gleitzman
The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
Call of the Wild by Jack London
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Pearce
The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman
Holes by Louis Sachar

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A Haven from Dystopia

Lots of people were worrying about the end of the world when I was a teenager. It was the middle of the Cold War. Who knew what small incident would grow into the crisis that would make one or other side press the button that would be the beginning of the end? The imminent end of the world didn’t worry me though. I didn’t take an awful lot of notice of current events. What kept me awake at night was worrying about the end of the universe. Once I’d decided that the God above us version of reality was nothing but a fairy tale, I was left with nothing but the scientific version, which appeared to be telling me that all human existence was nothing but a chance blip in the life of the universe and that in time humanity would be wiped out leaving nothing to mark its passing, and, beyond that, the universe would cease to exist. This meant that I was not simply an insignificant minor who might or might not make a mark in the world, but that my existence was a matter of total indifference to anything ever.

Nothing has changed. I still don’t believe in God and as far as I can see the scientific version of our future is likely to come to pass. It’s even possible that someone may press that button and hurry things up a bit. Glaringly dreadful as these facts are, you learn to turn away from them, to push them back behind the everyday business of living your life.

It seems to me that many teenagers feel as I did: a horror at their own insignificance in the greater scheme of things. They’re just starting to shake off the arrogance of childhood and the future is an uncertain place. So it’s obvious that they should turn to books about dystopias. Such books present futures or other worlds where the heroes have tangible struggles, definite foes, real battles. They’re fighting for survival against discrimination or authoritarian rule or a dying world. But no matter how impossible the task that faces these characters seems, they have the power to overcome it. And what is more, in almost every book, there is a haven that the characters will come to at the end, where all will be made right, where they will be understood. What better metaphor for the fears and hopes of teenagers?

10 Fabulous Dystopias

 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Offred is a Handmaid, a servant whose function is a bear a child for her Commander and his infertile wife. She remembers life before the authoritarian, patriarchal, religious present but can see no way to escape.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher
Ecological disaster leads to worldwide famine.

The Hunger Games sequence by Suzanne Collins
I don’t really need to say anything about these, do I?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A man and his son travel through a landscape devoid of plant and animal life, searching for food and shelter and hiding from other people who would kill and eat them.

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien
A girl believes she may be the only person left alive in the world until a stranger arrives.

1984 by George Orwell
The ultimate authoritarian dystopia, but be warned – no happy ending here!

Mortal Engines sequence by Philip Reeve
The world operates on principles of ‘municipal Darwinism’ by which cities travelling on tracks attack and destroy each other.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
When World War 3 breaks out, anorexic American Daisy and her English cousins learn to survive and adapt.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
In a world where being different can lead to being cast out or killed, a group of teenagers keep a terrible secret.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
A struggle to survive and rebuild after disaster strikes the world

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Don't forget the ending!

Publishers love a series. Of course they do. Think of the saving on publicity alone. You grab your audience once but they buy more than one book from you. Where’s the downside?

And kids love a series too. Right from the moment they first show an interest in what you’re reading them, they don’t just want one Mr Men or Thomas the Tank Engine or Meg and Mog book. They want them all.


(You knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?)

It is all very well to produce a series of books in each of which a set of characters have a separate adventure. I have no problem with that. Detective story format, you could think of it as. Each book is a story in its own right, beginning, middle, end. The characters are familiar perhaps, but they don't develop in any significant way. It wouldn’t matter if you read this one or that one first, there’s none of that ‘story so far’ nonsense.

The trouble comes when there is a progression between the books, when each leads on from the last. Too often, it seems to me, the publisher and author’s desire for a series conflicts with the reader’s desire for a good read. What starts out as a rollicking adventure ends up on a cliffhanger, which, if it is a new book, the child reader may have to wait a year to have continued. It’s so unfair! Imagine the disappointment when the character doesn’t find their long-lost mother or escape from slavery or whatever. I can appreciate that if an author has planned a plot that spans a number of books it may be hard to find an appropriate mini-arc of narrative within that plot for each book, but it seems to me that if you can’t, you haven’t actually got a book at all, just part of a book, and maybe you should be labelling them ‘part one’ etc, or waiting until you’ve written the whole thing before you publish it.

And of course the trouble with the second and subsequent books in a series is that so often they start with that great wodge of what’s already happened. How dull if you already know. And if you don’t, what a way to put you off reading the first book. Notice I am avoiding damning any particular series here, but I do want to mention that I have just read a particular book in a fairly long sequence which was almost entirely made up of explanations at to what the characters had lately discovered about themselves and how that changed their mission. I won’t stop reading the series now (it’s pretty good), but imagine if that one had been the first book you’d picked up!

How hard can it be to write each book in a series in such a way that you could start reading anywhere without spoiling the stories that have gone before? I read the Harry Potter books out of order and the His Dark Materials series and enjoyed every book. Well done J K Rowling and Philip Pullman! They have managed the trick.

Ten of my favourite series:

Narnia books             C S Lewis

Green Smoke etc       Rosemary Manning

Anne books (just the first 3 really) L M Montgomery

Flambards                  K M Peyton

Discworld (especially the Tiffany Aching stories) Terry Pratchett

His Dark Materials    Philip Pullman

Mortal Engines          Philip Reeve

Harry Potter              J K Rowling

Mary Poppins            P L Travers

Mantlemass                Barbara Willard