Summer 2006Newsletter and reviews of children's literature written by Dr. Andrea Deakin.
The Book Thief was first published in his native Australia as Zusak's first adult novel. His U.S. publisher has seen to issue it as a young adult novel to follow, presumably, on the success of I Am The Messenger. It can only be hoped that this will not turn away adult readers, for this is a complex, insightful, and ultimately sad book about everyday life in Nazi Germany.
The book has a narrator, Death, a gentle spirit with understanding and sympathy for those he gathers up, but with no illusions about mankind. One soul who obstinately continues to exist has caught his attention, one Liesel Meminger, who becomes the book thief. Liesel's little brother dies on the journey as their mother, their father having been taken away as a communist, carries her children to the safety of foster parents, and then leaves the story. At her brother's funeral Liesel takes her first book, "The Grave Digger's Handbook", which had fallen to the ground. Her foster father, Hans, teaches her to read it at night, and now she has a passion for books, any books. Through them she finds ways to communicate with the living and the dead. Indeed by the end they are her salvation.
The Book Thief is a book about survival, what people will do to cheat the narrator, how they will behave under pressure - fear, hunger, annihilation. There are powerful portraits here, images that remain long after the book is read. There are unforgettable characters: Liesel's foster father Hans, the gentle house painter and accordianist, her foster mother, Rosa, bulky, foul-mouthed, but still caring of Liesel.
There is Rudy Steiner, Liesel's friend and companion in mischief whose great hero, a dangerous choice, is Jesse Owens, and there is Max Vandenburg, a Jew, who arrives in November 1940 and is hidden in Hans' basement. There, on the white-washed pages of Mein Kampf, he writes and illustrates one of her books. There is the mayor's wife, quiet and shadowy, the shell of a person since the death of her son in the 1914-1918 war, who allows Liesel to borrow from her library and who herself returns a little to life with the understanding she and Liesel share.
The Book Thief is an extraordinary book, a powerful image of life, and death, for ordinary people caught up in terrible, extraordinary times. Death says, "I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They're running at me." The characters in the book have truly no where to run, they are clustering together and falling apart, dodging Death. But they cannot for ever. Yet, through all this darkness there is Liesel and Hans and Rudy, all offering that stubborn hope that hangs on despite suffering; hangs on supported by the human virtues of kindness, long-suffering and generosity of spirit.
Zusak's last comment is given to Death, "I am haunted by humans". The reader will be haunted by these humans too.
Elizabeth Knox is an award-winning writer of adult novels. Her novel, The Vintner's Luck, has won several awards, was long-listed for the Orange Award, and is being developed for film. Her new novel, Dreamhunter, is her first young adult novel.
The principal protagonists are cousins, Laura Hame and Rose Tiebold, whose fifteenth birthdays are fast approaching. When they reach fifteen they will be eligible to be tested at the Place, to see if they qualify as Dreamhunters.
The Place is a vast area contained within a smaller geographical area. Only a few people who arrive there for testing have the ability to cross over into this world in the other dimension. It is a dry desert-like expanse where dreams can be caught and returned to be relayed to others.
Most dreams are used in the Rainbow Opera, a vast entertainment centre where Dreamhunter and audience sleep on comfortable couches, where the attractive dreams are relayed. It is a form of entertainment on the whole, although some dreams are therapeutic and the hunters, skilled in gathering them, work with physicians.
There is recognition and wealth in being a Dreamhunter, and Rose is eager to try. Her mother is a famous one. Laura is diffident , but it is Laura who has the ability, although instead of receiving the pleasant dream sent out to test the young people, she receives a nightmare. An indication that all is not what people believe.
Shortly afterwards her father, the first ever Dreamhunter, disappears on government service. The official explanation makes no sense to the family, and the girls begin their own investigation; but it is hesitant and quiet Laura who faces a life-changing challenge.
This is an interesting fantasy with an edge of social and political commentary and a challenge to consider who should have power, why, and how much.
The Queen's Soprano is based on the life of Angelica Voglia, and many of the characters in her novel did exist. It takes place in late Seventeenth Century Rome when the city was the music centre of Western Europe. The pope at this time, Innocent XI, had brought in very restrictive laws aimed at women, declaring "Music is completely injurious to the modesty that is proper to the female sex, because they become distracted from the matters and occupations most suitable for them." Women were restricted to their homes except to attend mass. Then they had to be escorted to and from the church.
Angelica was born with a passion for music and a glorious voice. Condemned to practice indoors with the shutters closed, she still drew admirers of her voice in their carriages to listen in the square outside her home.
Angelica's mother is a bitter and ambitious woman who sees, in her daughter's gift, an opportunity to improve the family's lot, and is ready to sell her talent, and Angelica, to some admirer. Driven by the pressure of her mother's ambition, fear of the convent, and her growing affection for a young French artist, Jean Theodon, Angelica flees to the household of Queen Christina. The queen, who has given up the Swedish throne to become a Catholic, has control over a quarter of Rome beyond Vatican control, and she protects the young singer and gives her the freedom to perform.
The novel is rich in detail about the political intrigue and social pressures, and paints a vibrant picture of life both in the city and the court. There is a powerful, and historically correct, scene of near rape when Angelica is trapped, through her mother's wiles, by Bishop Vanini, even within the apparent safety of Queen Christina's palace. Every aspect of the pressure, brought to bear on young Angelica because of her beautiful voice, is vividly portrayed. The Queen's Soprano, based on a true story, is gripping, packed with action, and rich in colour and detail.
The Field Guide is one of those intriguing concoctions of elaborate illustration and "fact" that are so popular at the moment. This one is graced with an amusing informative text and some very fine illustration.
The water spirit that takes the form of a grey-black horse, the kelpie, stands invitingly, its mane woven with weeds and lily pads, but take note of that wild eye before you mount and are carried deep into the loch. Leprechauns are praised for the quality of their leatherwork and cobbling, and here sits one, stitching away, his four-leafed clover in his hat , and showing the intent stare of the craftsman concentrating on his creation. A salamander hovers in the dark, flames curling upwards from its body while the sensible advice is given, that they can be caught with tongs, and kept in an iron box.
The intent is some information and some entertainment but there is a solid appendix of further reading for those who wish to search further.
Visually, it is exceptional for its illustrative detail as well as its major portraits. I would certainly not want to meet Perrault's Ogre. The guide has been short-listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration.
A practical young boy, a nervous little brother, and a mother and father with romantic notions of a "different" holiday are the ingredients for a funny and engaging account of the family holiday- excursions not all of which work out the way the parents intended. Parents who take adventurous trips will recognise similar situations to the storm that knocks out a trip to the Painted Desert, or the few moments they seize together that end up with a soaking wet child and an agitated older brother. These are the trips that take hours to get no where, where the tire goes and a roadside repair is done, sentence by sentence, from the manual, and where children wonder, rather loudly, what was wrong with going to Disney World.
This is a book for the family to share, a story told by a down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is youngster, with little brother in tow. Certainly a book to read and enjoy together before planning that "special and different" vacation.
Every picture book by Ruth Brown is an invitation to explore, for each has its own secret to discover - the garden shed in Snail Trail, the amusing twist at the end of A Dark Dark Tale. Imagine is a book of opposites set in the framework of a child dropping off to sleep. The clouds outside the window look like sheep, sheep in a meadow, and in the meadow a slow tortoise and a fast hare. Their race leads to the sea shore and a round sun hanging over a flat seascape, and then a short caterpillar and a very long python. Here the opposites are clear to understand, but more imaginative than most- a towering office building, a crumbling ancient castle, still reaching equally into the sky.
A child introduced to Ruth Brown's work is a child introduced to beauty and subtlety and a fine sense of the infinite variety of possibilities in the world around them.
Alexis Deacon's hilarious first picture book, Slow Loris, was followed by Beegu which was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. His new picture book, While You Are Sleeping, confirms that here is a new artist of subtlety, insight and artistic ability. While You Are Sleeping is the tale of the bedside toys, "Do you ever stop to think what we go through, night after night, to look after you?"
All day they wait patiently, but when the child is asleep they check the room, even under the bed with all its potential danger, squish the bedbugs and scare the dreams away. One night the new toy, a tiny lion, proves his mettle by trying to pull the child back into bed when he falls out, and earns his place amongst the protectors. In the morning is the reward for their care and concern - a child's love.
The book is beautifully rendered, warm without being sentimental, gentle, loving - and funny.
Susan Hughes and Stephane Poulin have produced a subtle and heart-warming picture book. Into Ray's dull summer life (his friends are away at camp) comes this very different girl with her bright red pigtails soaring like antennae from her head. She is so different, thinks Ray, that she must be an alien. He had always wanted to meet an alien, and so he approaches her and the two become friends.
Ray is the narrator, and we see Audrey through his eyes. From this lively aware child Ray begins to know more about the world in which he lives. Never once is the thought, that she might be an alien, disturbed, it makes what he learns about his world all the more intriguing, and Susan Hughes introduces Audrey's family naturally and gently into the story, giving young Ray an experience of enjoying his world just for itself.
Stephane Poulin uses rich colour to bring the summer to life with strong shadows thrown by the summer sun and the rich colours of the landscape. There is a delightful picture of the children sprawled under a great tree's spreading branches. Here too are his familiar witty touches; the cinema advertises "Invasion", Audrey's father, in protective gear, works on a metal object in the garage, the clouds form dolphins in the sky, and a green Martian steps out from the movie poster.
On the day Audrey leaves the sky turns black and it rains. As Ray thinks about her the colours fade and autumn shows in the grass and the trees, suggesting the return to school. One witty last picture shows Ray experimenting, as Audrey did, with a kite flown from his bedroom window. Below, crouched behind the fence, his newly-returned friends watch, their whole attitude suggesting their skepticism.
This is an outstanding picture book - subtle, amusing, and thoughtful.
Lost and Found has a simple story to tell and it tells it in a direct text that will appeal to the very young child. Oliver finds a penguin at his door, thinks that it is lost, finds out where penguins come from, rows it back to Antarctica and leaves it there. That is when he realises the mistake that he has made, but all ends happily.
The simply drawn figures of Oliver and the penguin make a direct appeal, nowhere more successfully than in a full white page with a very sad penguin boldly centre. Uncomplicated line and bright yet subtle colour effectively support the story with tiny boats in great oceans and a great boat dominating a very small boy. It is all sophisticated, subtle, and very effective. It is also extremely attractive.
Oliver Jeffers, one of the new illustrators, had his first book, How to Catch a Star, short-listed for the Booktrust Early Years Award 2004, and Lost and Found was the Gold Award Winner, the Nestle Children's Book Prize in 2005. As well, Lost and Found has been short-listed for the Kate Greenaway Medal for picture book.
Jeanne M. Lee takes the story of Mu Lan from a Chinese folk poem believed to have originated in the 4th-5th centuries AD. Mu Lan hears the emperor's call to arms, a call to her father's name. He should respond, but he is not in his home and so, to save his honour, she arms herself and rides off on a 10,000 mile journey that will take her from home for ten years. Her courage brings her to the attention of the Emperor who, impressed by her valour, offers a reward. The only reward she wishes is to return home.
The text is reproduced in Chinese calligraphy and the story illustrated in watercolours on silk which produces rich but muted tones and follows traditional form. The result is a striking, delicately beautiful rendition of the folktale.
Ruth Ohi tackles the problem of the bossy friend in this little picture book, aimed at pre-schoolers. Ms. Ohi has a way of making a good point with concrete examples that young children can quickly pick up, and doing it with wit and gentle humour in text and illustration. Reading the text aloud to a small child produces immediate and definite response. They know exactly the type of "friend" that poor Clara is dealing with. Ruth Ohi has a way with detail too; watch for the reactions of the side players, for example the very earnest small boy who is obviously destined to be an artist / palaeontologist.
Sarah Ellis is in mood for some light-hearted fun with her story of two royal troublemakers - the Queen's feet. Her Majesty has real difficulty with these rebellious appendages who are determined to be both independent and inappropriate. When there is an international incident, however, they are forced to negotiate.
This is a lighthearted, funny, down-to-earth, or down-to-feet, picture book with bright, often hilarious, illustrations by Dušan Petričić.
Charlotte is her own woman, or should we say, her own sheep. Where others hang back, hesitate, are fearful, Charlotte takes off, and does. So all of her flock predict that she will come to an unpleasant end. Charlotte, unafraid of old Jack, the sheepdog, climbs trees, swims in streams, scales mountains, and at night, roams the countryside.
Charlotte's eccentricity, however, shows its value when the old shepherd breaks his leg and no one can, or even knows how, to make it to the farmer's house in the valley for help. That is, everyone but Charlotte. This is a nicely constructed and rounded story with the humour lying in the nature of the heroine and the whole delightfully and boldly illustrated in lively colour. It is a very satisfying picture book.
The New York Review's Children's Collection has brought back many much-loved titles in a handsomely produced and illustrated edition. Munro Leaf's Wee Gillis, first published in 1938, has just appeared with the original Robert Lawson illustrations. Poor Wee Gillis, his mother's relations are Lowlanders who stay in the valleys raising long-haired cows; his father's relations are Highlanders who stay in the hills and stalk stags. Torn between the two, Wee Gillis spends a year with each. Now events each year had encouraged the lad to increase his lung power - no, you must read the book - but he is able to produce enough lung power to blow a very large set of bagpipes, which settles his career.
It is a witty story whose moral does not age, and it is generously and effectively illustrated by Lawson with pictures as witty and fair as we remember them.
Also new in the New York Review's Children's Collection series is E. Nesbit's The House of Arden. The story is not as well known as much of her other work, but it has its own magic, and an intriguing character, the temperamental Mouldiwarp. On the presumed death of his father, Edred Arden inherits the title of Lord Arden. There is a missing treasure that belongs to the family and must be found, and found before Edred's rapidly approaching tenth birthday. When he and his sister, Elfrida, engage the magical help of the Mouldiwarp, they are led on a treasure hunt through the ages, visiting exciting periods of history and having to use their wits to survive.
Up In The Tree was published originally in 1978 into a market where there was a feeling that Canadian children's publishing was far too risky a venture. I began reviewing in 1971, and I remember the difficulties those early books faced.
For economy's sake Margaret Atwood not only wrote and illustrated the book, she used her university experience to hand-letter the type and the book was printed in only two colours, blended to produce a range of tones.
Certainly little children will still enjoy the tale, but it is equally valuable to collections of children's literature, a part of that early experience of Canadian children's publishing which is now so difficult to find.
First published in 1974, this anthology of poems, based on traditional First Nations stories from across North America, has a new introduction by Joseph Bruchac. As Bruchac explains, in order to fully understand the poems, one must realise that, in the eyes of First Nations peoples, everything in the natural world is alive. The stories behind the poems were ways of teaching people not only how to enjoy the natural world, but also how to survive in it. Over twenty poems represent peoples from the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) in British Columbia to the Absaroke (Crow) of Montana, and each is powerfully illustrated by the sensitivity and genius of Leo and Diane Dillon.
First Spring is a retelling of an Innu legend about how the first spring arrived in the world. Living creatures, bearing some likeness to present beings, live in a land where only winter rules - snow, cold, and darkest night. When a child is abandoned by his parents he is rescued by Mistapeo, the Great Spirit, and brought home. When Mistapeo leaves, the child is inconsolable, and the parents, who have heard tales of another land of warmth and light, set out with all the creatures of the night and cold to find it. The tales is the story of that journey and, on the way, their discovery of spring.
The text, more for mid-elementary school children than young children, tells the story engagingly, wittily, and with the balance and rythmn of a traditional storyteller. Geneviève Côté’s beautiful and witty illustrations are a perfect match for this engaging retelling of a traditional myth.
Croswell's Ten Worlds is an introduction to our Solar System aimed at 8-12 year olds. The text is accessible and clear, introducing the readers to technical terms and offering understandable concrete comparisons. Descriptions of the compositions of each planet and major moon, their rotation, distance from the sun, and possible appearance, are enhanced by striking colour photography. The whole is drawn together by a final description of the solar system's birth, as we believe it to have been.
This is an effective and engaging introduction for young people, one bound to lead them on to further exploration.
The Global Garden is inspired by the Eden Project in Cornwall. The project was established as a Millennium Project in the United Kingdom to mark the year 2000. It is an educational charitable trust. Two huge greenhouses contain plants from the tropics and warm temperate regions, and they back a temperate landscape. The intent is to educate the widest possible range of the public in the need for environmental care.
The Global Garden is a pop-up guide that helps children understand how humanity makes use of the plant world, and the need for us to take care of the plants in return. Tabs and wheels change the illustrations to help explain the relationships between the plant world and our day to day environment, and help children to understand the cycle from seed back to seed. One particularly striking pull page asks what it would be like if everything turned back into the plant it came from.
The Global Garden, which just won the Junior Section of the Aventis Award for 2006, should be invaluable with children in the younger grades. It is an excellent, and attractive, teaching tool.
This is such a huge subject, there are so many great libraries that could be discussed, that it takes skill to produce a book for young readers that is informative, interesting, and not overwhelming with information. Maureen Sawa has accomplished this. To open with the young Alexander and his tutor Aristotle was a good way to capture the attention of young readers, and Bill Slavin's full-page illustration of teacher and pupil sets the stage perfectly.
The growth and spread of libraries, and the tragic end of some by accident or deliberate destruction is interspersed with insets on subjects like writing materials, or life in a mediaeval scriptorium. The debt owed to the Arab world for the preservation of knowledge that would otherwise have been lost is described, and there are amusing snippets like the story of the Tenth Century Persian official who carried his library around with him on the backs of five hundred camels.
Most of the great libraries of the world are mentioned- like the library at Alexandria, The Bodleian and The British Library, and those people who have had a powerful influence on the best use and distribution of libraries - like the Scot Andrew Carnegie and the American Melvil Dewey.
The book is brought up to date with mention of the influence and generosity of Bill Gates, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which stands on the spot where the ancient library is thought to have stood, and the influence of new technology. This is a thorough and interesting account of libraries that will take the attention of any young bibliophile, but, above all, will be most valuable to teachers and librarians introducing young children to the concept of libraries.
Tim Haines and Paul Chambers were the creators of the fine BBC television series, “Walking with Dinosaurs”, and the subsequent series, “Before the Dinosaurs and Walking With Monsters”. This guide uses the high-resolution stills from those productions to create the 350 colour illustrations in this guide.
It is a field which is difficult to define, for new discoveries are constantly being made, but this guide, from the adult list, is bound to entrance young budding paleontologists as much as their parents. The text is, naturally, for the adult reader, but I have never found that to deter a young reader whose imagination and interest is captured. I remember a young "slow reader" who devoured books on Fine Arts. He was not a poor reader, he was a bored reader, and one of the best ways to stimulate a young reader is to present them with a well-written and illustrated book on their interest.
I found this an appealing and informative, if solid, text, and the illustrations are quite amazing.
Electric Universe is the winner of the Aventis Prize for Science Books in the adult category. The paperback edition was published this year. Here is another adult title which will also appeal to young adult readers. Not only are the advances in the field given here, but also an understanding of a complex science, and an engaging account of the very human people who made their discoveries.
Like Longitude, it shows that comprehension and genius shows up in unexpected corners prompted by much unexpected concerns. Samuel Morse was an artist before his discoveries, Farady's insight fought a hard struggle against prejudice, and the young Scottish scientist, William Thompson, had to fight big money and entrenched ideas and mind sets before he could prove to Cyrus Field that he was right about the great Trans-Atlantic cable. It was love that drove Alexander Bell's telephone. This is an absorbing account written with compassion, wit, and a deep appreciation and concern for the subject matter.
Guardian Children's Fiction Prize Shortlist
The Aventis Prizes for Science Books. 2006. (See reviews under Non-Fiction)
Achuka Children’s Books http://www.achuka.co.uk/
Barbara Reid http://www.barbarareid.ca/
Dick Bruna’s The Official Dick Bruna Website. http://www.miffy.com/
Index to Internet Sites: Children's and Young Adults' Authors & Illustrators
"A Kind of Magic": James Campbell of The Guardian writes about the life and work of Walter de la Mare, on the 50th anniversary of his death.