Awful Auntie – David Walliams (2014) – A Kid-Lit Review

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It’s been a couple of years since I read David Walliams’ “The Demon Dentist” and in that time his reputation as a writer (and his book sales) have continued to soar.  Just the other week the Duchess Of Cornwall’s Bookshelves Project celebrated her 70th birthday with a list of the UK’s favourite children’s books.  It’s quite a wide-ranging list and Walliams has two titles on it- neither of which I’ve read so I’ve obviously got more treats in store.

I thought “Demon Dentist” was “up there with the best of Dahl” and had everything that a children’s book should have. “Awful Auntie” was his next publication so it might be hoped he’d pushed the quality boundaries further.  He hasn’t really and if “DD” is up with the best of Dahl (that’s “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “The Witches” and “Matilda”) then this is nestling in with the mid-range of “The Twits” and “George’s Marvelous Medicine”.  I feel these are appropriate comparisons as they both share a one-dimensional overly sadistic undertone which stops this feeling as well rounded as its predecessor.

Set in the dilapidated Saxby Hall in 1933 the twelve year old main character Stella awakes to find her life has changed.  Her parents are no longer around and she is being held captive by the monstrous Aunt Alberta, a character without even the slightest drop of humanity who has as a side-kick a giant owl.  Agatha wants to claim the Hall as her own and is prepared to murder all around her to get it.  Stella has to use the Hall’s past to attempt to thwart her Aunt’s plans.  Such misery heaped on Stella becomes disturbing more than funny.  Walliams attempts to lighten the atmosphere by having her step temporarily away from life-threatening situations to make some mundane comments to her captor seems jarring to adult readers but most children will no doubt lap this up.  I think there’s also an over-reliance on lists to bring out the humour (Walliams does do this well as did Dahl) as here it does not add much to the flow of the novel, which highlights that the plot is sparser this time around.  The Tony Ross illustrations are great fun and would add much to the enjoyment, especially the plans and maps.

Children will relish guessing the twists in the plots.  He uses a small cast here and at least one character (Gibbons the ancient butler) is under-used.  There’s actually a complaint letter at the back of the book from recurring character, shop-owner Raj, who is moaning about his non-appearance in the book because of its 1930s setting and I thought that was written with more sparkle than a chunk of the preceding 400 pages.  “Awful Auntie” did fall a little short of my high expectations.  I feel that “Demon Dentist” is a better balanced book and has the feel of a lasting children’s classic whilst this over-emphasised dark slapstick to cover up Aunt Agatha’s evil machinations.  I expect Walliams to be outrageous but I think he over-eggs it here and loses something in the process. Kids, however, are a different breed and the continuing popularity of things like the film “Home Alone” suggest that this kind of slapstick-under-peril is perennially popular and the 1451 (at time of writing) 5 star reviews on Amazon would suggest I might be a little out of touch here but I just think he’s done and will do better.

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Awful Auntie was published by Harper Collins in 2014

The Young Oxford History Of Britain & Ireland (OUP 1996)- A Real Life Review

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I have gaps in my historical knowledge.  It’s likely that most of us educated in England would admit that.  At school I studied certain periods of history (some more than once).  I went on to study History at college but the eras largely overlapped with what I had done at school, leaving gaps of time about which I knew very little.  And I’ll admit that my knowledge of Scottish, Welsh and Irish history is even sparser.  This 500 page book is written for a young audience (although not that young, given the demands it makes on the reader, so probably early/mid-teens).  It seemed to offer an ideal overview of British and Irish history.  The general editor is Professor Kenneth O Morgan and it has been put together by five authors with distinguished historical backgrounds.  It spans from the time when the land mass which became Britain and Ireland was still joined to looking ahead to what the new Millennium might bring.  The text is generously broken up with pictures, photos, maps and diagrams.

On reading it I can confirm that it provided me with a good overview and showed me how our history fits together.  Obviously, given its scope and audience it’s all rather fleeting.  I can’t claim to be that more knowledgeable about the periods I knew less about (Medieval and The Georgians, for example), but what is impressive is the range of subjects covered both within the text and through the illustrations.  Photos, portraits, diagrams and maps are used very effectively and they do enrich the text and can often give little snippets of information not included elsewhere.  At the back there is a list of the English Royal Line Of Succession and Scottish Kings  & Queens (I was largely unfamiliar with this particular list) and UK Prime Ministers up to, because of the publication of the book, John Major.  Obviously, this type of book dates easily but twenty-one years on it does not seem jarring.  Here, the vast scope and range of the book is to its benefit.

The index looks pretty comprehensive and this would most likely provide most readers’ introduction to the text.  I’ve read it from cover to cover, but probably most would dip in and out.  This is going to last me a little while, until once again I start chiding myself about how little I know about the country in which I live and then I’ll no doubt seek out something similar.

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The Young Oxford History Of Britain and Ireland was published by the Oxford University Press in  1996.

Cirque Du Freak- Darren Shan (Harper Collins 2000) – A Kid-Lit Review

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There’s clever things going on here.  This is the first in the series of twelve books under the title “The Saga of Darren Shan” written by Darren Shan and narrated by Darren Shan.  I had to Google to find out just who Darren Shan is.  There’s not that many clues in the book.  I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be set in the UK, Europe or Australia/New Zealand- which would lead all these markets to identify closely with the work.  I discovered that Darren Shan is Irish author Darren O’Shaughnessy who has also written the eight book Demonata series for older children/teens.  There’s also the 13 book “Zom-B”, a number of other series and books written for adults under the name Darren Dash. (You have to enter your date of birth on his website to find this out, not wanting to encourage children to seek out his adult horror).  A prolific writer and this is the book that started everything off.

For the sake of the story the main character Darren is a schoolboy.  I liked the flaws in his character which are evident from the start.  He tells us things are going to get bad for him and they actually get worse than I was expecting in this introductory tale.  He kicks off with a prologue in which he details his fascination with spiders leading to his parents buying him a tarantula for a pet.  Things go bad when, after watching a cartoon character being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and emerging unscathed he tries it on his spider with predictably grisly results.  Darren also lies and steals in this novel so is certainly not squeaky clean and that is likeable in a novel for older children.

One of Darren’s friends finds a flyer for a secret freak show.  Entry by invitation only.  What Darren discovers at the freak show will change his life for good.

Arachnophobes may not get beyond the  prologue but if they do there are a few more challenges ahead.  In fact, the whole thing is rather creepy and really quite effective.  I could imagine if I was twelve years old I’d be reading the series end to end and perhaps not getting that much adult approval because of it.

Writer Darren sets up character Darren’s predicament well and on completion you can tell that there is significant mileage in this series.  For an author who is undeniably churning them out it doesn’t feel like a tale churned out, although, of course this is the first of the series.  For an adult reader it’s a quick, guilty pleasure type read, recalling the days of staying up late to watch TV horror films and getting the odd frisson from “Scooby Doo”.  For older children it’s a move on from the likes of the “Goosebumps” books but with a stronger  structure and more authentic chills.

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Cirque Du Freak was first published by Harper Collins in 2000.

The Author Strikes Back – Benita Jayne – A Kid-Lit Special

I have recently joined Facebook after resisting for many years.  The reason behind this was a school reunion that I was not able to go to which had its own Facebook group and photographs.  I found myself itching to see how well or otherwise people had aged.  Within a very short time I was back in touch with people who I had not had any contact with for, in some case, 30+ years.  I discovered that one of these, the writer of “Sacred Crystal Pyramid”, the first book in the Angel Messengers Series,  Benita Jayne, I knew under another name and that she was my old school pal who I used to travel on the 207 bus to school in the mornings.  Benita and I have had our own little reunion thanks to the “Sacred Crystal Pyramid” and I am delighted to welcome her to my Author Strikes Back thread where she has gamely answered questions which sprung to my mind whilst reading her book.  So without further ado……………………

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Benita Jayne

How did the idea of a series based around the Angelic Kingdom develop and why was Amethyst a good candidate to enter the kingdom?

I regularly use meditation to relax. During my relaxed state I had the vision to create guided  meditations (describing the place in detail like reading a book) that can take a person on a journey to a healing Angelic world to help reduce stress, aid relaxation and inner healing. The  places that were created for meditation were magical and this inspired me to create an adventure book, based around the places descibed.

I wanted Amethyst not to be the usual type of character that would journey to these places.  The experience for her would be unbelievable, hence her reaction from being a feisty character to one of awe and disbelief. To me she was the girl I wish I could have been.

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What comes across well is your warmness towards the healing power of angels.  Can you tell us more about that?

I have used Reiki angelic healing for quite some time for myself, friends and family. Some experiences have been overwhelming and have created my passion to explore this area further. I have read and heard of many accounts of amazing and lovely experiences with Angels. There are many different beliefs and I respect everyone’s personal belief, however Angels cross many different religons and cultures. I wanted to share my experiences in the form of a fantasy adventure book.

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With children’s books we are often aiming to create lasting memories.  What children’s books have been close to you since childhood?

The books that I remember most were the Enid Blyton Adventure series of books. It is funny how you never forget the characters and amazing adventures they have. To me they remain an important part of your childhood experience. Like your favourite sweets and TV characters, when you remember them it brings a good feeling inside.

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Do you know, the Enid Blyton Adventure books really never made an impression on me when I was a child, whereas I do read adventure books now.  The Enid Blyton books I loved were her magical stories aimed at younger readers.  I was particularly obsessed with a tale about a pixie market for a number of years.  It’s amazing to think now how much influence she wielded on quite a few generations of young readers.  Anyway, I digress…next question

It’s very clear that the Angel Messenger series is a labour of love.  You have developed a website  which has  special message cards and have been in charge of design and cover illustration for both books and website.  How important is this multi-media approach for children’s books today?

The strange thing is I started creating the Angel message cards before the book. I wanted to be able to inspire young people, to feel they are amazing, caring, capable of following their personal dreams. The book concept was born from the characters on the cards and the places I had created in my meditations. 

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My background is in design and illustration so it was a passion to create something that would work and support the series of books. The messages have been developed further and are now an extension of the books inspiration.  I wanted to share the experience of the angelic adventure being able to build confidence, vision, hopes and dreams.

Many books and characters now exist in a multi media form, Harry Potter is a prime example. I think multi media is now expected by the majority of industries, including books. 

The essence of a book can sometimes be lost in translation in a film as some of the detail and thoughts of the characters are lost.  Some of the popular books are then seen as a highly commercial and profitable business in the world of licensing and manufacturing and may dilute the original thoughts and message of the author. 

However if multi media is thoughtfully created,  it can be used in a positive way to communicate very important messages from the author to the reader. 

What’s next for Benita Jayne?

It is very important for me to help children know they are special no matter what their beliefs, culture or country they belong to. I have left the story open to enable me to take the characters to many places in the world to explore different countries and cultures. 

I am thinking about creating meditations for young people to help with daily stress, relaxation to help with studying and being creative. Look out for the next exciting announcements on angelmessengers.co.uk or follow me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for inspirational messages.

Many thanks for Benita for answering the questions and I would like to wish her luck with the rest of her Angel Messengers series of books. The first in the series, “The Sacred Crystal Pyramid” can be purchased on Amazon by clicking on the book title.  The book has attracted some great reviews.

Let’s not leave it another 30 years, Benita!

 

 

The Sacred Crystal Pyramid – Benita Jayne (2013) – A Kid-Lit Review

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The YA and teen book market is flourishing and there is particular demand for series titles.  A lot of what is being published in the UK is dealing with big, often sensitive issues, which is important but there is a gap for those who want more lightness – a reader perhaps who has devoured their way through the popular Rainbow Magic series and books of that ilk and who has moved on to the stage where they are looking for something a little meatier without going on to full-out fantasy or gritty social issues.

Enter Benita Jayne, whose debut novel in her “Angel Messengers” series might provide a satisfactory bridge.  There’s a good lead character here, the feisty Amethyst, relocated to a new home in Wiltshire and prepared to play the fool on her first day at a new school.  A discovery at home leads Amethyst and new pal Rosalina into the Angelic Kingdom where a battle between forces of light and darkness is being planned.  The transition from school story to the world of angels did jar a little for me as Amethyst, who has played the teenage lack of acceptance card until then becomes disappointingly docile entering the world of angels.  The girls are trained to play their part in the oncoming battle and I would have liked to see Amethyst’s feistiness come through during this training.  I couldn’t imagine the earlier Amethyst instantly accepting instructions such as “I would like you to feel immense love in your hearts whilst directing your wands towards the dark energies.” The training section felt a little rushed with the characters temporarily losing their identities (overpowered by the angels?).  I know there’s a desire to get on with the main event (the battle) but a series gives the luxury of being able to get the groundwork just right.  Once out of the Angelic Kingdom Amethyst and Rosalina reverted to type chatting about the couple of boys they met there.

The problem I have with a lot of books that deal with the fantastic is that events can dominate characters.  It is tricky to get the balance just right but when it works the results can be superb.  Benita Jayne has managed to portray good, convincing characters but they become inconsistent in the Angelic Kingdom.

Once we are onto the quest to recover the Crystal Pyramid from the darkness the author’s enthusiasm for the realm of angels shines through and there’s a strong section when Amethyst faces peril and does more closely resemble the earth-bound teenager and things do come to a satisfactory conclusion.  I would be interested to know where Benita Jayne goes next with this series as she hasn’t really set anything up so she can probably take the series anywhere.  There’s much mileage in the healing power of angels and the points where they touch our lives.  I’m sure there will be many readers willing to find out more about these angel messengers.

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The Sacred Crystal Pyramid was independently published in 2013.  It can be purchased from Amazon by following this link

Michael Rosen’s A to Z (Puffin 2009)- A Kid Lit Review

 

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Subtitled “The Best Children’s Poetry From Agard To Zephaniah” and with a foreword and selections by Michael Rosen you know you are in safe hands.  Rosen’s “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here” is my all-time favourite children’s poetry book and this man has done so much over the years to get children excited and motivated by poetry, both to listen to it and read it aloud and also have a go at writing their own.  I consider him to be one of the most significant living children’s writers and I’ve met him a couple of times and he is an extremely affable man as well as possessing the great talent of holding a school hall full of restless youngsters in rapt attention.

With this collection Rosen has achieved very much what he set out to do- find us a selection of the best modern children’s poetry and present it alphabetically.  He smoothly gets round any difficulties with the format via his charm and good humour – “Q here for the poet/ Get in line/ No pushing” and for U “U are the poet and here is your poem:” with ruled lines for the reader to write own attempt on, but where the poets are accommodating and do have surnames which fit into Rosen’s alphabetical format they get two bites of the cherry, with two poems each.

Despite many years out of the classroom I still read poetry books like a teacher, looking for those I want to share further, making notes of titles and revisiting them until I’ve got the book summed up in around 10 poems and finding myself choosing the one that has made the most impression on me.  I know I shouldn’t be looking for a “winner” in a poetry book but can’t help myself doing it, I’m afraid.  As an adult I think I favour most the poems that offer a real snapshot of time which brings memories and associations of my own childhood coming back, rather more than the playing with rhymes and rhythms that children respond to so well and of which there are many poems in evidence in this collection. So for me the best on show is Alan Ahlberg’s magnificent “The Mighty Slide” which features 7 pages devoted to the playground ice slide.  I’m sure many of us would remember waking up on snowy school mornings realising there could be a patch of ice in the playground that we would be able to skid over.  Now, frowned at as a thing requiring its own risk assessment and a bag of grit it was full of excitement as it transformed the familiar school playground into something special and Ahlberg gets this just right – the first arrivals, the development of technique, the queuing, the moment when all is perfection quickly followed by the deterioration of the ice and the whistle which ends the fun;

“There’s shouting and shoving:  “Watch this!” “Watch Me!”

“I’m floating!” “I’m falling!” “Oh, Mother!” “Wheee!”

And all the while from the frosty ground

That indescribable sliding sound

Yes, snow’s a pleasure and no mistake

But the slide is the icing on the cake”

This is marvellous stuff and can also be found as the title poem in Ahlberg’s 1989 collection, one of his many beautifully observed poems that celebrate the life of the primary school. His closing couplet is magnificent;

“Some plough the land, some mow or mine it;

While others- if you let them-shine it.”

Whilst we are talking about beautiful observations of childhood Michael Rosen himself is one of the best and in the collection we get the very satisfying “The Noise” exploring his father’s reactions to the sheer volume of having two boys.  In a similar style I also loved Paul Lyalls’ “My Mate Darren” a tale of a friend whose living rooms games of war with toy soldiers are brought back to him ten years later.  I do not know his work but after this might very well seek out his collection “Catching The Cascade” (2009).  There’s the poignancy of memories in John Mole’s “The Shoes” and Gareth Owen’s discovery of what is making the noises in his “Empty House” would freak me out more than discovering an actual intruder.  It’s great to have a bit of peril in children’s poetry.  It’s ingrained in us our early rhymes such as “A Dark, Dark House” and “What’s The Time Mr Wolf?”

Of the poems where the sounds of the words rather than the theme are the central focus there are some solid examples on display, including a number with Caribbean heritage which would work well with a class of children.  I had a very big soft spot, however, for a Scottish dialect poem “Dino’s Cafe” by Matthew Fitt which tells the tale of Dino working in his cafe;

“In a brichtly-coloured peenie

Dino redds up a Panini,

And he dichts doon aw the tables wi a cloot”

Poetry for children should be read aloud and this really benefits from this (Accent not essential as the words lead you to the correct sounds).  The food-based punning of Andrew Fusek Peters’  “Attack Of The Mutant Mangos” comes thick and fast and would have a class of children groaning with joy.  To calm things down I would suggest Benjamin Zephaniah’s “People Need People”, a rational, thought-provoking verse on the importance of having others around us.

I’ve just picked out a handful of the poems as a taster for the whole book but I see what I’ve done and I’m going to air it before any criticism.  I haven’t mentioned any female poets.  There is a gender bias in the book anyway with, after a quick count, 16 of the 61 poets women and there are women poets of great calibre.  I really enjoyed the selections by Carol Ann Duffy, Dilys Rose and Coral Rumble, for example, but I’m also aware that on this occasion I found myself going back to re-read the poems by the men mentioned.  Is this some gender related thing in that I found when looking back to childhood it was the male poets that spoke most to me or is it just coincidence?  I don’t know and it’s probably best not to get stressed out about what is a highly readable, very entertaining selection of poems from the best of modern children’s poets.

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Michael Rosen’s A-Z was published by Puffin in 2009

Dakota Of The White Flats – Philip Ridley (1995) – A Kid-Lit Review

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Philip Ridley is responsible for one of my all-time favourite children’s novels “Krindlekrax” (1991).  It is a book which reads aloud perfectly and was always a huge hit from my Primary School teaching days and was, I know, for a number of children I taught the book which turned them on to reading.

I have read another four of Ridley’s children’s books- “Mercedes Ice” (1989), “Meteorite Spoon” (1994), “Kasper In The Glitter” (1995) and “Scribbleboy” (1997) but only in “Kasper..” does the magic come close to Krindlekrax.  Ridley does not seem to have published any children’s novels since 2005 so I thought I’d go back and read one of his earlier novels I hadn’t experienced before.  “Dakota Of The White Flats” was republished with new illustrations by Chris Ridell by Viking and Puffin in 1995 but actually pre-dates “Krindlekrax” as it first saw light of day published by Collins in 1989 when it obviously did not set the world of children’s books alight.  I was glad to find out that it was earlier than “Krindlekrax” because you can see some of the elements which came together to make that book so marvellous here in a formative shape.

The plot is not quite as rich but some of the characters have the little identifying quirks which made them so memorable in “Krindlekrax”.  Ten year old Dakota Pink is no Ruskin Splinter but there is depth to her and a surprisingly prickly edge.  There’s a passive aggressiveness in her relationship with best friend Treacle that parents might want to highlight.  She looks after her Mum, permanently cocooned in her armchair since the failure of her marriage by cooking her dumplings and looks after the lodger (the most “Krindlekrax-ish character of the lot – Henry Twigg, with his “clicketty-clackitty-click-clock shoes”) by clearing the silverfish out of the bathroom.  The children become fascinated by the secret in mad-woman neighbour Medusa’s (think Absolutely Fabulous’ Patsy combined with Cruella De Vil) cabbage-strewn pram.

For me there are not the layers of depth of “Krindlekrax” with its themes of bullying, old age and death, loneliness, self-esteem and heroism although these children have their own quest.  It doesn’t have that same resonance of the traditional fairy-tale and myth nor the magical way that sound effects are used to build the story.  I did, however, very much enjoy the spirited Dakota’s challenge and the sense of accepted craziness which thinks nothing of a mother fed only on dumplings and an unresolved piece of magical transformation.  I still have a number of Ridley’s children’s books to read and I’m still hopeful of finding one to rival “Krindlekrax”.  “Mighty Fizz Chilla” (2002) which was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Awards sounds as if it has potential.  And then I have his adult work to consider.  There are three novels, the screenplay for the 1990 British film classic “The Krays” to his latest film work, as writer and director for 2010 British horror “Heartless”.  There’s a number of highly-acclaimed plays (available in two volumes from Methuen) for adults and also some for children.  Should I wish there’s also poetry , opera, photography, rock music and art to explore.  This man is a real all-rounder and an under-rated British talent.

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Dakota Of The White Flats is most readily available in the Viking hardback/Puffin paperback edition which was published by them in 1995

 

 

 

Kidnap In The Caribbean – Lauren St John (2011) – A Kid-Lit Review

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One of the reasons I so enjoyed Lauren St John’s first Laura Marlin mystery “Dead Man’s Cove” was because of its Cornish coastal setting which gave it a nostalgic glow of childhood holidays and the type of mystery novels we used to read when young, even whilst it was dealing with modern crime and modern characters.  Readers obviously agreed with this as it was awarded the Blue Peter Book Of The Year Award and the Favourite Story Award in 2011. So it was a brave move on the part of the author to take Laura out of this setting and locate the second novel of the series in the Caribbean, leading to the climax on the volcanic island of Montserrat.

When I picked this book up I wasn’t sure how St John with her newly established cast of extremely likeable characters would engineer Laura’s relocation but it is done through a raffle prize which sees Laura, her uncle, her friend Tariq and Skye the three-legged husky on board the Ocean Empress heading for a holiday of a lifetime.  It’s not long before things start going wrong and once again it’ s a serious modern crime at the centre.  The Montserrat location gives St. John a chance to give the reader a bit of volcanic explanation, making this book a good literary choice to run alongside a school project on volcanoes.  Also, the whole issue of marine conservation comes up through Uncle Calvin’s work and the author  provides information about the scarcity and ill-treatment of some species which I was not aware of.  Maybe my head has been stuck in the (Caribbean?) sand but I did not realise how bad things have got for tuna fish and Lauren St. John in her Facts section at the back recommends a boycott, nor did I know that some rock salmon bought in UK fish and chip shops is actually endangered shark.  I know that some people are wary of stark messages to children dressed up in fiction but there’s no doubt that were I an intelligent 11 year old lapping up this tale that I would have taken the author’s advice, so if you are a fish eating family you might wish to be prepared for this beforehand.  If, however, you want to spread the word this novel will do that and St. John promotes the Born Free Foundation and Kid’s Club.

For me, this novel is slightly more cartoony than its predecessor and although I enjoyed it very much for me “Dead Man’s Cove” was a stronger, more rounded work.  There are important issues raised here which enhance rather than get in the way of the story.  I can see from the next title in the series (“Kentucky Thriller”) that a return to St. Ives is not imminent and I hope St. John manages this balance between education and entertainment.

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“Kidnap In The Caribbean” was published by Orion in 2011

Krindlekrax- Philip Ridley (Red Fox 1991)- A Kid-Lit Review

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Earlier this week I was reminiscing on this blog with Cleopatra Loves Books  (see the 22 Letters post for the discussion) about the end of the afternoon story time at Primary School and how much these books meant to us.

When this book was published I was working as a Primary School teacher and there was nothing better for forging a relationship with the class and for turning them onto books than the carefully selected novel read in instalments. Nowadays, with the over-crowded curriculum I understand that this practice is much less common, which is tragic. My all-time favourite book for reading to the children was “Krindlekrax”.

We are taken to Lizard Street, a location which seems very real and yet dream-like. Ridley uses repetition so effectively to build up an almost hypnotic effect. This creates, as in many of the best children’s books, a kind of skewed reality. The superb cast of characters all have some identifying quirk and/or a catchphrase (“Oh Polly-Wolly-Doodle-All- The-Day”!) or sound effect which are used and built upon sublimely in the telling of this story.

It is the tale of Ruskin Splinter, the boy who wants to be the hero in the school play and tame the dragon and who is denied the chance because of his unheroic appearance in favour of Elvis Cave, who menaces the whole of Lizard Street with his football (Da-Boing!), breaking windows even at night whilst sleepwalking. Ruskin’s only friend is Corky, the school caretaker, an adorable character who regularly gets my eyes misting up. Ten years before there had been an incident on Lizard Street which had turned Corky’s hair white and given him a limp, caused cracks in the pavement and the bricks to go dark.

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Like the best traditional tales the plot is simple and yet runs very deep and you find yourself responding in the same subconscious, intuitive level as to the best and earliest stories. There’s issues on self-esteem and self-image, bullying, coping with death, separating fantasy from reality, being judged by appearances and the realisation that time existed and things happened before you were born; all dilemmas likely to be faced by the child reader and reaching some resolution here.

The use of sound is exceptional. The creaking pub sign “Eek!”, the drain cover “Ka-Clunk!”, the football “Da-Boing!” gets children anticipating and joining in. I had second language children with very little English who loved this book and begged to take it home. These sounds, together with the characters identifying phrases and gestures helps the story to build up and children experience the same chills as in those classic games “What’s The Time Mister Wolf?” and “In A Dark, Dark House.” Ridley doesn’t cop out with the climax, it’s every bit as scarey as the build up suggests.

Twenty-four years after its publication this book still reads extremely well. It is a relief to find a book directed at this age group that doesn’t rely on underpants, snot or pooh for its humour. I never read aloud a book (with the exception of Michael Rosen’s poetry) that was such a huge hit. Year 3 classes adored it and when on one occasion I taught a Year 5 class who I’d also had as Year 3, they were clear they wanted to be re-read this and enjoyed it as much (if not more) the second time. I hope these children are reading this to their children now.

“Krindlekrax” won The Smarties Prize in 1991 and WH Smith Mind-Boggling Book Award. The author has written a number of other children’s books which didn’t quite have the same magic for me (although I am very fond of “Kaspar In The Glitter”). Philip Ridley is one of those multi-talented in many fields individuals. He has written adult novels and plays, plays for children, poetry, screenplays, directed films and is a photographer, artist, songwriter, musician and has written an opera. He is an exceptional, under-rated British talent, and this book, which was for a number of children I taught “the book” that springboarded them into reading and could very well be his finest work.

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Krindlekrax was published in 1991 by Red Fox

The 22 Letters – Clive King (Puffin 1966) – A Kid-Lit Review

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22letters

Question – Have you ever had a book that you have held on to for years and years, which has been taken with you from new home to new home and yet remains fairly neglected and seldom taken off the shelves?

Meet my copy of “The 22 Letters”.

I read this book when I was about 10 years old and must have really enjoyed it because it remained on my bookshelves, staying at my parents house when I was at college but then coming with me and staying on my shelves for a considerable number of years (ok it’s 40+). The vast majority of my collection of Puffin books ended up in various charity shops, jumble sales or were given away but for some reason this stayed and I just never got round to reading it again.

Clive King is most famous for his “Stig Of The Dump” and this book for a time was a fixture in Primary schools where I taught for many years and it is still a well-loved children’s book and one I knew well. But it wasn’t my copy of “Stig” that hung around, it was this. Recently, curiosity got the better of me, why couldn’t I throw this book away? Why had it survived every book cull? It certainly wasn’t for the murky cover illustration.  I had to re-read it to see why it was that I had this intuitive need not to part with it. My memories I had of it were that it was quite a demanding book for me as a young reader. I read it quite slowly, it seemed to be my “reading book” for quite some time. At that age I was keen on adventure and authors such as Willard Price, Malcolm Saville peppered my reading alongside my much loved children’s classics, a number of which have already featured in this blog, so I reckoned that it must have been a book that I was particularly thrilled by.

Children’s adventure books tend not to have dated very well. There’s Enid Blyton of course, but they seemed dated when I read them and their continuing popularity is curious, but do children still read Willard Price whose books entitled “Safari Adventure”, and “Amazon Adventure” are likely to read very differently now with our very different world view? I was a little concerned what I would find in the pages of King’s 1966 book. I checked Amazon – was it still, like Stig, even in print, or had it been quietly withdrawn as tastes changed? Well, it’s no longer in print but copies are around of a similar vintage to my own.

First surprise was the dense and highly descriptive text, which just doesn’t appear in books for children of this age today. It wasn’t going to be the thrill-a-minute I had anticipated. Three brothers leave their home in Gebel (modern Lebanon) around 1500BC for different reasons. One of the brothers, a soldier, discovers horses can be ridden, one, a sailor, discovers navigation by stars and the third, a young scribe, is ultimately responsible for the early alphabet (not a plot spoiler because the clue is in the title). This is one talented family!

Pace-wise, for much of the book it is surprisingly leaden with separate chapters devoted to each of the brothers (and to their sister, who, – remember it is written in 1966- stays at home). It is very much helped in the last third by a dramatic earthquake and volcanic eruption which seems to be, for the characters involved, the end of the world. The pace is certainly upped here and the persevering reader is rewarded. Although I do not remember this section it must have been this which made that subconscious impression which kept the book on my shelves for my 20s, 30s ,40s and (yes, I know…….) beyond. But sadly no more………………..

As I was reading it the book began to fall apart. After decades of being ignored the experience of being re-read proved to be too much for the book. The cover fell off, the glue parted company with the spine (Puffin! Are your paperback books not designed to last 40 years! Shame on you!) and by the time I finished with it the only place for it was, sadly, the bin. I did feel that the book let me down, both physically and emotionally but I will forgive Mr King and may very well seek out “Stig Of The Dump” for a re-read. I’m sure that many of you reading this will have had experiences of books that do not fulfil the reverence we gave them when young. Let me know these experiences, only don’t tell me that Leon Garfield was not what he was cracked up to be as that might be one too many childhood dream shattered!

threestars

“The 22 Letters” was published by Puffin in 1966. Interested readers can currently pick up a second-hand copy from Amazon (but look out for the glue on the spine) from 65p.