Children’s books for adult minds – part 2

Children's Books Post2Last week I posted reviews of four of my favourite books for children and teens – the kind of writing that, in my experience, appeals to adults and young people alike. Here are four more that top my list.

If you have any suggestions for YA or children’s books you think should make it into my library, or fond memories of the ones I’ve already included, let me know by clicking on the Leave A Reply button. Thanks!

Ninety-nine Dragons by Barbara SleighNinety-nine Dragons by Barbara Sleigh

As a small child I REALLY wanted a pet dragon, so my discovery of Barbara Sleigh’s gentle adventure tale gave me a voyeuristic thrill.

On a hot summer’s night (back in the days when Britain still had summers), Ben and Beth can’t get to sleep so their dad suggests counting sheep. So far, so ordinary. But Ben chooses to count dragons instead, which is fine except that the smallest, 99th dragon, doesn’t quite make it over the gate, and then they work out that the sheep and the dragons must be in the same place, and that dragons love nothing better to eat than sheep.

The only thing for it is to each count the other jumping over a gate and go to warn to the sheep…

My Sister Sif by Ruth ParkMy Sister Sif by Ruth Park

This teen novel is a more grown up version of the mermaid stories I grew up on, which is possibly why I found it so entrancing. Add to that an exotic location and a waft of ecology and I was utterly transported.

And then there are the Menehune, and the wildlife, and feisty Riko whose sister Sif of the title is more sea-dweller than land. It simultaneously fuelled my love of wildlife, travel and (though I would not have wanted to admit it as a teenager) fairy tales.

There’s plenty of drama as Riko fights to save both the tropical wonderland she grew up in, and the family (which includes a few dolphins) she adores from the encroaches of the modern world, but in the end the real threat comes from love.

The Owl Service by Alan GarnerThe Owl Service by Alan Garner

I only discovered this book towards the end of last year, when a friend mentioned the impact it had made on her as a child.

Reading it as an adult I found myself gleaning tips on how to enthral readers, offering just enough information to keep them hooked without giving the game away.

Following the discovery of a set of crockery patterned with owls that seem to disappear at whim, Alison, Roger and Gwyn find themselves locked into the equally mysterious patterns of an age-old feud that threatens to destroy them all.

Owls, plates, ancient legends and the glorious Welsh countryside… How could you resist?

The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughreanThe Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean 

The tale begins with Paul Roux, nicknamed Pepper, reaching his 14th birthday – a momentous event considering he’s been told since birth that he would die before this date. But when his birthday arrives with Pepper Roux intact, he flees and begins a series of adventures, hiding in other people’s lives.

It’s a wonderfully imaginative journey that requires the reader to leave their grown up skepticism at the door and accept Geraldine’s reminder that: “People see what they expect to see. Don’t they? Or do they see what they choose?”

Read more of this review.

Discover the first four books on my ‘Children’s books for adult minds’ list.

RIP Ian Banks

Scottish trees blurredOnly two months after announcing his diagnosis of late stage gall bladder cancer, Iain Banks had died. The literary world is poorer for it – we’ll miss your beautiful prose and unique voice, Mr Banks!

I first discovered his compelling talent when I moved into a shared house where the living room bookshelves contained a number of his works. The first I read was The Bridge, and I was entranced. Walking On Glass, The Wasp Factory and A Song of Stone soon followed, each one astonishing me with the way Iain could bring poetry to the most desolate of scenes.

He was, undoubtedly, a word-smith of a writer; hewing and chiselling, smoothing and shining until every word say in the absolute most perfect place for it, constructing sentences that could soar and sing and carry the mind of the reader with them. Forget ‘How To Write’ tomes, just read Iain Banks and learn from a master.

Goodbye Iain Banks, and thanks for leaving us with so many of your words.


How to win at sports journalism

Nicola Joyce swimIn today’s guest post, journalist Nicola Joyce coaches us on making it as a successful sports writer.

It’s difficult to untangle my career as a sportswriter from my own adventures in sport and fitness. In fact, I don’t think I’d be doing this job had it not been for one, rather special, sporting achievement. This is how it happened:I made the decision to become a freelancer when I was made redundant and moved out of London.

It seemed like as good a time as any to pursue a career in writing (something I’d always wanted to do). Initially, I took on copywriting clients, but knew I really wanted to write features for sport and fitness magazines. I just needed a way to get my foot in the door.

Nicola Joyce swimmingAt the time, I was just a few weeks away from swimming the English Channel (the first of two successful swims, as it would turn out). If I couldn’t pitch a first-person piece about swimming the Channel, it was unlikely I had what it takes to be a freelance writer of sport-related features!

Happily, my initial pitches got picked up and I was commissioned to write about my Channel swim (thank goodness I got there, otherwise the features would probably have been spiked!). Continue reading

Portrait of a writer

Julia Donaldson by Peter Monkman, 2013 © National Portrait Gallery, London; commissioned 2013 with the support of BP as part of the First Prize Winner's Commission, BP Portrait Award 2009I have always been deeply fascinated by the rooms of writers and artists. Perhaps it comes from peeking into my mum’s painting studio as a child, that smell of linseed oil, inspirational objects (shells, pebbles, sheep’s skulls…) dotted around the light-filled space… Or perhaps it comes from a column I used to devour in a newspaper bought by my parents, where writers talked about their craft and were photographed sitting in the room where they carry out much of their work.

The result is that the newly unveiled portrait of children’s writer Julia Donaldson (on show at the National Portrait Gallery, London), fascinates me.

Because Julia, in addition to having a writing room, also has a ‘props cupboard’. Amazing, right? Holding a notebook and pencil, she’s shown surrounded by the items she uses when reading from her books, including The Gruffalo and, one of my favourites, Room on The Broom.

The portrait’s artist, Peter Monkman, describes the vivid background as a ‘fictional’ space, reflecting what he sees as ‘the magical, youthful nature of Donaldson’s personality’.

It reminds me why I love the concept of a Children’s Laureate, as this painting was revealed to the world on Julia’s her last day as Children’s Laureate, 3 June 2013.

It’s an idea, which originated from a conversation between the then Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and children’s writer Michael Morpurgo, that celebrates reading in the most alive way possible – the readers of tomorrow. Because if we enthuse children with the power of books, we may well end up with enthused adults. And that’s got to be a positive thing.

Psychobitches review

Madeira sculptureDid you catch Psychobitches on SkyArts last week? I’m in love with the Playhouse Presents programmes at the moment, and this sharp, surreal comedy series is among their best.

The sketches feature a startling line-up of history’s most notable females, from Audrey Hepburn to the Brontë sisters, each eager to sort through their tangled neuroses with psychiatrist Rebecca Front. The Sylvia Plath/Pam Ayres hybrid performed by Julia Davis is achingly good, as is Sharon Horgan’s Eva Peron. In all honesty, though, they’re all top notch characters reimagined by excellent writers and presented by a wealth of talented funny women, and, um, Mark Gatiss.

The second episode of the six-part series is on tomorrow at 9pm, with this week’s clients including Enid Blyton. I suggest programming it into your SkyBox or Tivo right now.

Children’s books for adult minds – part 1

Children's books post1I had originally intended this to be a post about the top few books I remember meaning a lot to me growing up, and a handful I’ve discovered in more recent years. However, scouring my bookshelves I re-discovered too many to whittle them down to any fewer than eight.

The idea for this post came from a discussion I had at a party recently, when I explained I was in the midst of writing one book for teens and one for adults, and had just completed one for adults with a child protagonist. It made us laugh, but the thought stayed with me that long before so-called ‘crossover novels’, there were many books my parents had introduced to me, or that I discovered by myself, that were written so beautifully they seemed to transcend age-appropriateness and just appeal to everyone. Clever.

Here are the first four that remain favourites for me. Four more will follow next week.

Halfling coverHalfling by Rebecca Lloyd

Danny Broadaxe is an ordinary 11-year-old boy, but his life is anything but ordinary. Since the death of his mother in a car accident that also put his father in a wheel chair, Danny has been trying to take care of his dad while dealing with his grief on top of the usual trials of school and life.

His story, however, is far from bleak, Rebecca Lloyd’s delicate touch ensures that a genuine love resonates between Danny and his dad, while a thirst for knowledge about the natural world keeps Danny enthralled in the discoveries he makes all around him. And then he discovers a secret one of the neighbours has been hiding.

Read more of this review.

Shine by Jill Paton WalshShine by Jill Paton Walsh

It’s so long since I read this book, yet it made such an impression on me I can replay most of in my mind. Pattie and her family have to move to another planet as Earth goes cold and an unnamed disaster looms. They’re each allowed to bring one book, and everyone is horrified when they discover Pattie brought an empty notebook. Such a waste! But months later… but that would be spoiling the surprise.

This beautiful, poetic little book shares the experiences of the families as they seek ways to survive on the planet that Pattie, as the youngest child (other than the babies) names Shine.  It’s a gentle adventure full of curious challenges (the trees here need to be split rather than hewed and lamplight seeps through their translucent planks) with gorgeous illustrations by Sue Smith. Perhaps that’s partly why the scenes are still so vivid in my mind today.

BTW, it seems that since I got my copy way back when, the book has been reissued with its original title, The Green Book.

The Ordinary Princess by MM KayeThe Ordinary Princess by MM Kaye

I utterly adored this book as a child. The idea of a run-of-the-mill heroine (Amy – rather than Amethyst) trouncing around climbing trees, pretending to be a kitchen maid and eschewing all the usual traits of being a princess was refreshingly different to the perfect, beautiful images of perfect princesses (“with “long golden hair and blue eyes” and “extremely dull” to quote Amy’s mate Peregrine) I’d been presented with up until then.



Double Vision by Diana HendryDouble Vision by Diana Hendry

Two sisters, one aged 8, the other 15, rampage through a 1960s summer by the sea seeing the world around them in two very different ways. Eliza, the elder, is in love, entranced by Beatnik Jake who lodges in the attic of her friend/foe Jo.

Lily, the younger, is more concerned with nightmares, curses and a shrunken head. Through it all sweeps the oldest sister Rosa, as haughty as she is glamorous, until she too falls in love.

I re-read this book recently and actually I found I enjoyed it more as an adult.