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Articles tagged with: best books for children

Open Very Carefully Wins the Picture Book Category of the Waterstones Children's Book Prize

Posted by Kate on Apr 04, 2014

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The Nosy Crow Reading Group verdict on Goth Girl and The Ghost of a Mouse

Posted by Kate on Mar 17, 2014

On Thursday last week, the Nosy Crow Reading Group discussed Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse.

I am a huge Chris Riddell fan, myself, and was proud to acquire the Ottoline books when I was at Macmillan and to publish the Muddle Earth books, which Chris wrote with Paul Stewart. And so we are really delighted that he’s working on illustrations for Nosy Crow’s own Witchworld series.

All seventeen of us at this month’s Nosy Crow Reading Group loved the “amazing”, “beautiful”, “fantastic” illustrations in Goth Girl, and all but one of us loved the “astonishing” production values of the hardback book – the silver foiling, the shiny spot UV, the sparkling foiled edges, the quality of the paper and the printing, the tiny book at the end. The one dissenter felt it was maybe over-bling-y, but hers was a lone voice.

Many of us had a strong sense of the author’s immersion in the world he’d created, and his passion for it.

Whenever we look at books, a key question for the reading group is always, “who is it for”, and we struggled to come to a consensus on the answer for this book. Clearly, lots of the literary and other allusions and references, from Homer to Fight Club and Abercrombie and Fitch, and the presence of parodies of historical figures like Mary Shelley and Samuel Johnson, aren’t going to be picked up by child readers.

There was a divide in the group between those who felt that this wasn’t an issue – that the characters and the story were fun and compelling enough for children to simply skate over the stuff they didn’t “get” (but might remember and “get” later), and those who felt that the balance between the jokes with adult appeal on the one hand and the plot and characters with child-appeal on the other hand was weighted too much towards adults. Those who weren’t so keen felt that Ada was a little flat as a character, and the absence of an emotional journey for her meant that it was hard to engage with her. Some of us thought that the book was “self-indulgent”. Many of us thought that the ending was a little hurried, and that there were plot holes and loose ends. Several people commented on what appeared to be editorial glitches, mismatches between the text and the art (the text description of the image on page 137 refers to a man chasing a swan, but the picture shows a woman: Leda, I assume), for example.

This book won the Costa children’s book prize. The judges described it as “wonderful, charming, delightful and inventive.” And Josh Lacey, reviewing the book for The Guardian, says, “The actual plot is skimpy, but that doesn’t matter; the point of this lovely book is its oddball characters, witty details and literary references […] But it is Riddell’s artwork that really makes this book such a pleasure to hold and read. The text is peppered with all kinds of lovely illustrations, from sketches of the characters to a magnificent double-page spread of an elegant vampire duelling sabre-rattling pirates. There are loving nods to 18th-century pamphlets and magazines, the wallpaper and statuary that you’ll find tucked away in odd corners of stately homes, and, of course, Peake and Heath Robinson (Dr Cabbage looks very much like Professor Branestorm, even down to his habit of wearing several pairs of glasses). Goth Girl may be marketed at tween girls, but will undoubtedly find a very happy readership among adults.”

As a group, it’s fair to say that we loved the art, and the physical book itself, but felt that we’d enjoyed other examples of Chris Riddell’s writing more.

The seduction of discovery and discount: Waterstones' 20% off weekend and my unintentional spending spree

Posted by Kate on Feb 02, 2014

Tea, cake and a completely full loyalty card at Waterstones Piccadilly yesterday.

Yesterday, I went to Waterstones Piccadilly with my book-loving older child, now 14. The afternoon expedition had started out not as a book-buying excursion, but as a walk in St James’s Park – one of those things you suggest to your teenager as a way to (a) get them out of their pyjamas on a Sunday and (b) spend some time with them in the hope that they might chat to you. However, once we were at the park, we decided we’d walk up to the bookshop. I knew, from Twitter, about the 20% discount weekend, and I had a debit card in my pocket. But my intention was just to spend some time browsing books with my daughter, and maybe to buy – sort of as an act of support for a truly excellent bookshop, more than anything else – one book, either for her or for me.


Once a book-lover… A photograph of a photograph on the stairway at Waterstones Piccadilly showing the older child at a Gruffalo event many years ago. I’d forgotten it was there, and must have passed it many times, but she recognised herself.

I should say right now that there is no lack of books in our household. I recently tweeted a picture of the physical books that have accumulated around my bedside – just a fraction of the books, some of them unread, in the house.


The books by the bed. Sharp-eyed readers will spot the Kindle on top of the tall pile. Sharper-eyed readers will realise that what you see is just the front two piles: there are two piles of books behind these ones.

Nor is January any more of a flush month for me than it is for anyone else, post-Christmas.

So I had neither need nor, really, means, as my child and I arrived at Waterstones, entering from the Jermyn Street Entrance.

Frankly, we didn’t resist for long. The 20% discount was prominently advertised throughout, and, by the time we’d got to the main body of the shop, I was already clutching six Quentin Blake Matilda/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory greeting cards (for my thinning greetings-cards-on-standby box) and a guide book to London for the family. My daughter, studying Mandarin and 20th century history, found Jung Chang’s biography of Mao on the ground floor, which I bought to give her on her forthcoming birthday. The Mao biography was close to where I found Lean In (which I had, it turned out, bought as a Kindle book, and partly read, but entirely forgotten: I am not sure whether that reflects worse on me or Sheryl Sandberg… but I suppose I can lend the print edition to other people more easily). Then my daughter stumbled on something she hadn’t known existed: a board game based on one of her favourite novel sequences, Gormenghast. I bought it for her grandfather to give to her for her birthday. Upstairs, I replenished my sadly-depleted Christmas present drawer with The Design Museum’s Fifty Dresses that Changed the World, for a fashion-aware relative. Then on to the children’s section. By now, I was really trying to persuade myself that I was Just Going To Look, and to see how Nosy Crow’s books were being displayed… but somehow I ended up with Squishy McFluff (bought for the format) and How to Lose a Lemur (because Fran, the author/illustrator, works for Bounce, who manage our sales representation) for the Nosy Crow office bookshelves. Honestly, I’d probably have bought more, but my daughter was getting restive.


Nosy Crow series fiction (The Grunts In Trouble and Olivia’s First Term) on a table promoting the first books in great series.


Nosy Crow’s Just Right for Two in place for Valentine’s Day.


Nosy Crow picture books (The Princess and the Peas, Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam and Dinosaur Rescue!) on a picture book display table.


Nosy Crow’s Baby Aliens Got My Teacher glowing from the fiction shelves.

So we went down to the basement for a tea and cake – also 20% off – and then the plan was to go home… but in the cafe there was display of DVDs with Walk The Line at a pre-discount bargain price of £3.99. My husband likes Johnny Cash, and just last month I was telling him about the film, which he hasn’t seen but which I saw on an aeroplane once. He has a birthday coming up soon, so I took it upstairs to the ground floor to pay for it… which is where I saw Life After Life at the cash desk.


What I bought at Waterstones Piccadilly without really meaning to

Look, I am not proud of this rampant consumerism. I ended up spending money I had decided I couldn’t easily spare on things I hadn’t intended to buy. And anyone who knows me will know that I am pretty resistant to the temptations of shopping: Nosy Crow colleagues would be likely to comment if I wore new clothes to the office, for example. So this isn’t a common indulgence.

The point is that the whole bookshop experience (from the lovely displays of things I could properly look at and pick up in a lovely place, to the staff member in the children’s section who offered to help me if I needed support on book choices, via the cafe) combined with the discount was just… really, really seductive.

I spent – gulp – £89.52, including the redemption of my rapidly-filled loyalty card.

Last night, I worked out what the same things (not including tea and cake, obvs) would have cost me had I bought them on the same day from Amazon (though I couldn’t find on Amazon the greetings cards I bought in Waterstones, and had to substitute other Quentin Blake greetings cards). The answer, without including delivery charges, was £88.09. So, with delivery, I would have paid more if I’d bought everything from Amazon. But the thing is that I wouldn’t have spent the money on Amazon. I only ever go to Amazon to buy things I know I want/need, and never to browse, far less just for a really nice thing to do on a wintry Sunday. But at Waterstones, in the context of a leisure activity with my child, I spent money that I never intended to spend on books/book related things I didn’t know, or had forgotten, existed. I would never have spent that money online. Without the discount, I might still have bought a book (even two) at Waterstones, but my spend was very much increased by the discount.

And I don’t think I was alone. Waterstones Piccadilly felt a bit like a venue for a book party this afternoon: lots of people with armfuls of books buying and browsing and reading and chatting.

So I was wondering aloud on Twitter if a monthly, or quarterly, event like this weekend’s could work for Waterstones. Of course, I know the arguments against it: it’s hard/dangerous/impossible/unsustainable for bookshops to compete with online retailers on price. A bookshop’s costs, from space to staff via stock, are so much more expensive. Financially, the odds are stacked against bookshops, who tend not to have indulgent investors, and who need to turn a profit on books today, in contrast to internet giants like Amazon who can build their stock value based on building their revenue – to an unimaginable, for me, $74bn dollars in 2013 – and market share, while only making a 1% operating profit last year, and who can use books as loss-leaders. I know, too, that Waterstones Piccadilly is the company’s flagship store, and I suppose I might have been less seduced in a less stunning, less spectacularly stocked branch.

But I certainly came away having clocked many more books that I would like to buy than books I bought, and, truth be told, with a renewed sense of excitement about Waterstones as a consumer (I always feel excited about, and grateful to, Waterstones as a supplier!). I guess it might depend on what the weekend’s take was (perhaps The Bookseller will provide analysis); on refining the model (for example, my loyalty card was credited with the full price of the books, I bought rather than the discounted price, which I hadn’t expected, and was maybe unnecessarily generous); and whether, as some Twitter friends suggested, if the event were held regularly, people would just hold out for discount days, and not buy at all at other times. One Twitter friend suggested a subscription model, so you’d pay an annual fee up front to be a “member” to get your discount, maybe every day, not just on special days (not unlike Amazon Prime, in a way).

What do you think? Where do you buy your books? How can bricks-and-mortar bookshops compete with online retailers? Would you pay to be a bookshop “member” in exchange for discount? How important is price when you are buying books anyway?

(Thanks to Philip Downer, Julia Kingsford and Cathy Rentzenbrink as well as other Twitter friends who chipped in to the discussion on Twitter on Sunday evening that prompted this blog post.)

Fictional Families from Children's Literature we wouldn't want to spend Christmas with

Posted by Kate on Dec 03, 2013

In a blog post for Harper’s Bazaar, Sam Baker lists the fictional families she wouldn’t want to spend Christmas with.

She included two families from children’s literature: the March family from Little Women (for the record, I would love to be part of the March family on any day of the year), and the Dursleys from the Harry Potter books (hard to argue with that).

Here are fictional families from children’s literature that the Nosy Crow team feels that we wouldn’t particularly enjoy pulling a cracker with:

I’d be a bit worried that Mr Darling from Peter Pan would mess up the day with one of his ludicrous ultimatum-based outbursts, and no amount of mawkish and self-indulgent attempts to compensate by sitting in a kennel would make up for the emotional trauma and indigestion.

Ola isn’t keen on spending time with Matilda’s family, the Wormwoods, from Matilda by Roald Dahl, who would watch the worst TV and never give books as presents. And she’s worried that the excessively blase parents from David McKee’s Not Now Bernard just wouldn’t notice if you weren’t there at all.

Tom doesn’t think he could spend Christmas with the Famous Five, on the basis that he likes to spend Christmas as lazily as possible, ideally sitting on a sofa watching Home Alone with a plate of mince pies, while the Five would want to break up a smugglers’ ring. He’s also doubtful his constitution would withstand a festive season with Mr Toad of Toad Hall, which he thinks would be likely to get out of hand. On the other hand, he feels that the wholesome piety and goodwill of the Cratchits from A Christmas Carol would grate after a very little while. I don’t think that A Christmas Carol is a children’s book, but he says the fact that there’s a Muppet version of it confirms that it is part of the children’s literary canon.

There’s a consensus that eating sprouts with Aunts Sponge and Spike from James and the Giant Peach would be no fun at all.

And, of course, the Grunts, though they love each other deeply really, would be unlikely to celebrate Christmas conventionally. A Christmas version of their roadkill diet doesn’t seem appetising, and Mr Grunt is an erratic gift-giver, having presented Mrs Grunt with a pair of barbecue tongs that she uses to pull out her nose hairs on one occasion and Sunny, the boy he stole from a washing line, on another.

Which families from children’s books would you not want to spend Christmas with?

The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group verdict on A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton

Posted by Kate on Aug 09, 2013

Yesterday evening the Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group met for the third time, and the book for discussion was Dave Shelton’s A Boy and a Bear in a Boat. Winner of the Brandford Boase Award, shortlisted for The Carnegie Medal and described by Philip Ardagh, reviewing for The Guardian, as “very special”, the book isn’t short of accolades.

As with previous books we’ve discussed, the book was set up for discussion on a special Nosy Crow Guardian page on The Guardian website, and Michelle from The Guardian used the comments section to run a commentary on one of the two discussions (we divide into two groups to try to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak). Though there was some overlap in discussion between the two groups, it’s worth reading Michelle’s live commentary. And if you’ve anything to add to the discussion – and we really hope you have – it would be great if it could join the comments on that page. There was discussion about the book in the run-up to, and during, the reading group meeting, on Twitter, using, as we have for previous books, the hashtag #NCGKids.

Here, I’ve tried to pull together the thoughts of the other group, but I’ll also try to include other comments from the end of the discussion, when both groups got together again.

We began the discussion by going round the table, asking each person for his or her overall feeling about the book, and at once it was clear that this was a book that was going to divide the group more than the previous titles we’d discussed, Wonder and A Monster Calls. One of us described it as “a masterpiece” that would still be being read in 50 years, one of us said, “It has a richness that feeds you, and, rightly approached with a child, would enrich them too”, some of us couldn’t make up our minds how we felt about it, some of us felt pretty indifferent to it, and a couple of us found it “frustrating” and “annoying” and a bit boring. Many of us, even at this stage in the discussion, wondered how appealing it would be to a wide audience of children.

To prompt a discussion – in the unlikely event that we run out of stuff to say, which hasn’t happened yet – we propose a few questions in a blog post before the event, which to some extent influences the shape of the discussion.

Oh, I’d say that this blog post contained plot spoilers, but the concept of a plot spoiler doesn’t apply awfully well to this particular book. But the bottom line is that if you want your reading untainted by our thinking, read the book before the blog post.

ALLEGORY?

On the basis of our responses to it, the book is open to a wide range of (adult) interpretations. Some of us thought that it was about life, about being a living human being: you are beset with ennui and problems and you’re pretty directionless, but despite all that you just keep bashing on. Some of us thought that it was about growing up from childhood to adulthood. Some of us thought that it was about being a child and being a parent, with the boy as the growing child and the bear the father, who assumes authority (“This is a captain’s hat. I am the captain of this vessel and a captain, let me tell you, does not get lost.”) though even from the start, he has a sort of innocent ignorance (the bear is astonished that it might be possible to navigate by the stars, and by the idea that the constellations might have names, and finds the simplest game of I Spy compelling), but later the boy becomes the captain, initially temporarily donning the captain’s hat while the bear turns “his dead eyes away… staring into space”, and ultimately the boy is rowing the bear, in a metaphor for parent/child role-reversal that many of us recognise as our parents age. Some thought, in the context of this interpretation, that Harriet, the boat, represented an absent, possibly dead, mother. Some of us thought that it was, somehow, about an afterlife, and even that it bore a religious interpretation, as it championed faith in adversity. We thought it unlikely that children would be drawn to this kind of “what’s it really about?” sort of speculation, however: to them, it’s about a boy and a bear in a boat.

DIDACTIC?

Many of us (arguably in the absence of much of a plot in the first third of the book – see below) looked for “lessons” in the book. Some of us suggested, variously, that the book taught the appreciation of small things, the importance of patience, the value of living in the moment, the benefits of slowing down, or a sort of E M Forster-esque Only Connect message. Some of us doubted that the lessons that had been extracted by us as adults would be as clear to a child: if it is a didactic book, then it isn’t terribly explicit in its didacticism.

WHAT OTHER FICTION DID IT MAKE US THINK OF?

This is a book that made people think of other books (and films and TV). I – and I wonder how far it was just that I was trying to get a purchase on the book by bringing other cultural references to it – found myself thinking about Waiting for Godot, The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Life of Pi, the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, and Herge’s Adventures of Tintin. I even found myself thinking of the last sentence of The Great Gatsby as I was reading the last sentence of the book. Others mentioned The Prisoner, The Hermit and The Bear, The Old Man and the Sea, and Alice in Wonderland,

FUNNY?

Many people who tweeted using the #NCGKids hashtag found the book hilarious, in a lol-y kind of way, and some said their children had too. Though we found parts of the book amusing, it didn’t exactly make us laugh.

STRUCTURE

The structure of the book is interesting. For the first third of the book, a boy and a bear row for days and nights across a featureless stretch of water. I will admit that, at page 97, I caved, and skimmed forward to the end, as I couldn’t quite believe that the author would try to sustain a book that is almost 300 pages long with no incident. In fact, in an interview (but I can’t track it down – please help!), Dave Shelton seems to suggest that he struggled with the middle of the book (which I’d suggest is page 106 to page 288, but that’s my opinion). In an interview with School Zone, Shelton talks about “succumbing to the inevitable” and adding more incident as the book went on: “I started out by trying to make the two of them being bored and there was much more of that in my initial draft. Eventually, though, I succumbed to the inevitable of having to bring more in to the story; just having two characters together getting bored wasn’t enough. I even fell asleep when I was trying to edit it!”. Some of us thought that this left the book a rather odd shape – one third (and the very end) very slow and quiet, and the rest of it full of either classic or cliched (depending on your point of view) sea adventures: a minor storm, ravenous hunger and imminent starvation, an encounter with a sea monster, an encounter with a ghost ship, a stranding on an island, and a shipwreck in a bigger storm. One of us, though, suggested that this fitted with an interpretation of the book as a sort of new-window)seven ages of man allegory of life, with childhood seeming incident-free (in which context, the comic could be seen as the experience of reading for a pre-literate child) followed by adulthood, packed with incident and problems, before a calmer old age.

THE ENDING

In several interviews (including the one I can’t find), Dave Shelton’s said he knew what the ending would be before he worked out other parts of the book. In an interview with The Reading Zone, he talks about having written the ending early on: “From quite early on I knew where their relationship was going,” says Shelton. “I had the ending written out very early and I am very proud of it, and it certainly helped having a literary destination for the characters.”

Some of us found the ending “bleak”, “depressing” and “flat”, feeling that the boy and the bear had more and more materially stripped from them as the book progressed (though arguably what they lost in material possessions, they gained, in a compensating sort of a way, in the depth of their relationship and the richness of their experiences). Others felt that the book ended the only way that it possibly could, and one of us pointed out that if you had to lose one of the three “b“s of the title, it was better that it be the boat than than the bear or the boy,

Few of us could help speculating what might happen next, and, again, there was a divide between those who thought that, as they had each other, and were moving on, that the boy and the bear would be OK. Others of us felt that they had little hope of reaching any destination, and that, given their materially diminished state, the next adversity would be the last.

THE ILLUSTRATIONS

We all agreed that the illustrations hugely enhanced the book, some of us doubting that we’d have got through without them.

THE WRITING

Unlike the illustration, we were split on the question of the quality of the writing. This is Dave Shelton’s first conventional novel – he’s written in comic/graphic novel form before. Some of us felt that the writing was very “visible”, to the point of being mannered and overwrought: the author was “elaborately trying to be good at writing”. Some felt that it would have been better as a comic book. But others felt that, whatever we felt about the content, this was really good writing.

WHO’S IT FOR?

Like the other two books we’ve read, we recognised that the book had an adult appeal. I think that it’s fair to say that fewer of us, this time around, were as confident that the book had child appeal. A previous reading group attendee said via Twitter that she thought that it would be “too slow” to read to her class. A retired children’s librarian in the group acknowledged it as, and applauded it for being, an “old-fashioned book”, saying that it didn’t necessarily conform to “how young people like to read now”. She said it was “caviar to the general”, that might appeal – but might appeal strongly – to a particular kind of child reader. And, in fact, on Twitter, speaking about the group’s responses to the book as they were relayed by Michelle, Dave Shelton himself said, “I always hoped it would be very special to a few of its readers rather than quite good for a wide readership”. Several people felt that it was a book that would work better shared as a read aloud book, read by an adult to a child, than given to a child who’d be left to get on with it.

I asked directly, “Who’s it for?”, and here are a few of the responses from people in the group:

“It’s written for adults.”

“It’s written for children.”

“It’s written for children, but adults can find a deeper meaning.”

“It’s written for adults who like to read children’s books.”

“Its for Kafka readers of any age.”

“It’s for the adult in the child and the child in the adult.”

“It’s written for the author.”

SO…

This book was, many of us felt, a bit of a blank slate – in which context the cover of the hardback with the blue chart and the coffee ring was more indicative of its nature than the more traditionally illustrated paperback cover. We ended up interpreting it and responding to it very differently. It was, in this way, a sort of perfect exemplar or proof of the validity of reader-response criticism. Either that, or the experience of reading it for a reading group discussion made us look for depths far beyond the author’s intent! Some of us loved it. Many of us liked it, or quite liked it. A few of us didn’t like it much at all..Some of us felt it was a brave book. Some of us felt it was self-indulgent. We couldn’t agree who its audience was, and many of us expressed doubts that it would appeal to many children. We all acknowledged its originality, though it made many of us think of other works of fiction in different media.

What do you think?

Please tell us here.

PS.Here is a short review of the book by an individual reading group member:

PPS Thanks to Sarah Snaith for the photograph at the top of the blog post.

The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group verdict on A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Posted by Kate on Jul 15, 2013

Last week we had the second meeting of The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group. The children’s book we discussed was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

There are plot spoilers in this blog post, so be warned.

We all had a strong emotional response to the book. It was described as “wonderful”, “beautiful”, “powerful”, and “visceral”. Many of us admitting to having been moved to tears even on second readings (by which time, some of us reasoned, we’d thought we would be partly inured to the impact of the book because we were in part prepared for what happens… at least one of us had thought that Conor’s mother might be saved by medicine made from yew). But, even on a second reading, we were, as one of us put it, “still shell-shocked”, and another described how her husband had asked her to stop reading it as her sobbing was stopping her 15 year old getting to sleep. With a sad inevitability, many of us felt that we were able to bring our own (adult) experience of bereavement to our reading of the book, and many of us spoke about how true and real the evocation of grief and of isolation was.

In our blog post introducing the title as a reading group book, we asked a few key questions:

1) Is this book a work of fantasy?

2) Who goes on the longest emotional journey?

3) What do you think the relationships other than that between Conor and the Monster add to the novel?

4) Does Conor ever lose your sympathy?

5) Are the illustrations necessary?

The first question was the trickiest and most of us were willing, in the context of this novel, to accept a great deal of ambiguity. As the monster says, “your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day”. The essential question was, is the monster an imaginary projection of Conor’s need, or is it something outside him?

For some of us, the monster was the personification of Conor’s fear, or a physical manifestation of his emotional turmoil. Conor, who himelf defines the monster as “only a dream”, calls the monster into being by the power of his imagination… and by the power of his need for someone to connect with and, ultimately, tell his story to. No-one, other than Conor, sees the monster (or the needles, or berries or sapling mentioned below, for that matter), and any damage he appears to do to Conor’s house – breaking the window in the course of his first visit – is not there in the morning. But for some of us, there were strong indications the monster was real (so this was a fantasy novel). The needles (swept up and put in the bin the next morning) and the berries and the sapling were a material indication of this, but so, too, was the fact that the monster tells stories that Conor does not know with endings that shock him profoundly. The monster describes himself as elemental: “I have had as many names as there are years to time itself!… I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man… I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that berathe the wind! I am the wolf that kils the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everthing untamed and untameable!… I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.”

On the second question, most of us agreed that Conor goes on the longest emotional journey… but perhaps it would be best to describe it as a journey towards understanding and maturity – and specifically to the recognition that ambivalence and ambiguity are part of even our most extreme feelings.

However, there were those who felt that the Conor’s grandmother’s emotional journey was the most compelling, with her having made a real connection with Conor by the end of the book… though none of us felt that the author had taken an easy route and provided Conor with a wholly changed and sympathetic grandmother to “compensate” for the loss of his mother. And, as one of us pointed out, the grandmother had wigs to lend to her daughter. Perhaps the author was hinting that the grandmother had had cancer too.

On the third question, most of us felt that the relationship between Conor and the monster was so compelling that there was relatively little room for other relationships. Of course, part of the point of the book is that Conor is completely isolated.

Few of us, in answer to the fourth question, felt that Conor did lose our sympathy… but that wasn’t an absolutely uniform feeling: at least one of us found him pretty unappealing throughout, and was particularly shocked by his destructive impulse and his violence. We asked ourselves if we would have felt the same level of sympathy if Conor had been a girl… and we dismayed ourselves with our own answer: we felt that we might have felt less sympathetic towards a girl who destroyed rooms and beat people up.

The answer to the fifth question was largely determined by what edition the members of the group had read! If they’d read the illustrated edition (which Patrick Ness himself, in a sequence of Tweets, said he viewed as the better of the two), they felt that the illustrations provided a depth and, interestingly, sometimes provided a pause, a sort of breathing space and a relief, in the intensity of the story. Few felt they’d lingered on them, though. Those of us who’d read the unillustrated edition were happier with the pictures in our own heads, and some of us felt that the pictures made explicit and less ambiguous things we were happy to leave less fixed.

We had a conversation about who the book is for. I can’t say that we reached a conclusion on this point. Some of us felt that it would be useful to an older (11+) child or teenager facing or having had the experience of bereavement. Some felt comfortable sharing it with 11+ children who were not dealing with bereavement or the prospect of it (I gave it to my children at 11 and 13, though only the 13 year-old read it), but others felt it was too grim to give to a child as young as 11 and would only want to see it in the hands of teenagers. They felt it would engender fear in children who had no (immediate) need to be fearful. Many felt it was “for everyone”, and certainly for adults. One member of the other group said she’d bought 11 copies of the book for members (adult, I think) of her family when the family had suffered a bereavement. The concerns were about the fact that Conor’s mother’s illness was described in some detail, but I also think that the fact that there was no happy ending and that there was such ambiguity in the book made people uncertain about giving it to a child. As one of us said, “I would give a child a Jacqueline Wilson book about death before this one… because it’s too real”. (I wrote about the responsibilities I feel as a publisher of books for children here in a way that has some relevance to this uncertainty.)

I asked people what the book was about. For me, it’s about the guilt that comes from denial, and the healing that comes from truth. The monster calls Conor by name, but, also, Conor is the monster, who calls the yew tree. As the monster says, “You felt the truth of it when I said that you had called for me, that you were the reason I had come walking. Did you not?”, and Conor feels his own feelings – the feelings manifest in the nightmare that is at the centre of the book – to be monstrous. He lets his mother go, because, though he doesn’t want her to die, he wants this terrible part of his life to be over: “I can’t stand it any more!… I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go! I just want it to be over! I want it to be finished.”

We struggled to discuss flaws in the novel. For some of us, the focus on Conor and the monster was to the exclusion of the full development of other characters, with the intelligent villainy of Harry feeling particularly one-dimensional (and drawing comparisons with Draco Malfoy and his henchmen, Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter novels). The teacher in our group felt uncomfortable with the way that the bullying was dealt with by the school, and some of us felt that the adults’ failure to be properly honest to Conor about his mother’s death – their complicity in his denial – was exaggerated. One of us felt that the book was a little “incoherent”, and had wanted, for example, a greater link between the stories that the monster tells and the unfolding events of the story. (Though, as the monster laughs incredulously, “You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons… you think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness.

Contradiction is at the heart of the novel – it is, for example, by holding tightly to his mother that Conor can finally let her go – and this made the novel more slippery – harder for the groups to get an intellectual grip on – than, say, R J Palaccio’s much simpler Wonder. This was a book about inarticulacy about which at least some of us (I put myself in this category) struggled to be entirely articulate! I asked which novel people had preferred discussing: A Monster Calls, or Wonder. I think, on balance, that though we preferred A Monster Calls, most of us found Wonder more pleasurable and easier to discuss.

But what do you think?

Do please let us know your thoughts in the comments section here, on Twitter or, even better from our point of view and the Guardian’s, on the Guardian page for the reading group discussion.

The Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group verdict on Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Posted by Kate on Jun 14, 2013

We held our first Nosy Crow Guardian children’s book reading group for adults in our offices last night, and the first book up for discussion was Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, the winner of the Waterstones Childrens Book Prize for the 5-12 year-old category.


Chatting before the discussion started

Wonder has been regularly compared to Mark Haddon’s hugely successful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (as Suzy Feay writes in The Independent, “I imagine that the pitch for Wonder went something along the lines of “does for facial disfigurement what The Curious Incident… did for Asperger’s”). It’s had excellent reviews. Cory Doctorow wrote, “Palacio is a wonderful storyteller and her characters are bright, well-rounded and intensely likeable. Wonder is a beautiful book that is full of sorrow and triumph, emotional without being manipulative,” and the book received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

There were twenty-odd of us, including Nosy Crow people and Michelle Pauli from The Guardian, so we split into two groups, as we thought that would give everyone a chance to speak. We discussed the book for an hour in our groups (and Michelle Pauli did a great job of transmitting the discussion in her group as it was happening onto The Guardian’s online page for the event), before reuniting with a glass of wine to talk through the main points our groups had raised (the picture at the top of this blog post).

I was focused on coordinating discussion in my group: I failed monumentally to do any Tweeting, and I didn’t make any entries on The Guardian’s page. But here’s a taste of what my group thought, and of part of the full-group discussion afterwards.

PLOT SPOILER ALERT

The first thing to say is that this blog post contains plot-spoilers, so look away now if that bothers you!

A GREAT BOOK

The second thing to say is that we all enjoyed the book, which many of us had read a second time for the group. Many said they “loved” the book, and spoke of their emotional response to it, saying that they’d cried at various points: the dog dying and the prize-giving were common triggers. Many of us felt that there was much to be said for aiming a book at children that celebrates kindness and the triumph of the better aspects of humanity. One reader, a teacher, liked the way that it showed that children can, and do, mess up, but that mistakes can be remedied. Readers thought Auggie was well-realised (I, for one, think that the first 80 pages is an example of terrific writing). As Kirsty said as the Nosy Crows were washing up afterwards, if it had come in as a manuscript to Nosy Crow, there’s no question that we would have swung into action immediately to try to buy it.

So, broadly, this was a book that we really liked and would encourage others, adults and children, to read.

Our discussion and our criticisms of the book focused, essentially, on two things.

TOO SENTIMENTAL?

First, many of us felt that the book was too sentimental. Several of us pin-pointed the prize-giving scene as particularly problematic, and was described as “too easy”, “too perfect”, “soppy” and “phoney”. This had already come up in Twitter discussions about the book before the meeting, where author Sally Nicholls (who, in Ways To Live For Ever, has herself tackled the challenge of describing a child dying of cancer) had voiced doubts about the prize-giving, saying it was patronising to anyone with any kind of disability or disfigurement, and comparing it to the attitudes parodied in this Laurence Clark video. In mitigation, Auggie himself says:

“I wasn’t even sure why I was getting this medal, really.

No, that’s not true. I knew why.

It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk. Only, I know that I’m that person to other people, maybe to every single person in that whole auditorium.

To me, though, I’m just me. An ordinary kid.

But hey, if they want to give me a medal for being me, that’s OK. I’ll take it. I didn’t destroy a Death Star or anything…”

Many of us said that we felt that the attitudes of the children to Auggie were simply unrealistic: they just weren’t mean enough. This was, we felt, particularly true of Summer. We all agreed that the most painful moment of the book was Jack’s betrayal of Auggie, and several of us commented that this felt very real. Others commented that the “Plague” was a great way to convey the other children’s initial refusal to accept Auggie.

In the context of the question of sentimentality, we spoke about changing attitudes to disability (or disfigurement). In many 19th Century children’s books disability was the “responsibility” of the person who was disabled (often caused by a moral misjudgment) who was also, often with the encouragement of another child, “redeemed” morally and physically. But in Wonder, the “responsibility” belongs to the other characters, and their morality is revealed by their attitude to the disabled (or disfigured) character. I wrote about sight- and hearing-impaired characters in children’s books in this blog post last summer, and one of us brought along this exploration of the subject.

We asked ourselves if we had different standards, where didacticism and sentimentality (and we saw these as linked in this book – the happy outcome was essential to the moral lesson) were concerned in adult books as opposed to children’s books. We felt we did. We broadly agreed that didacticism and sentimentality were more acceptable in children’s books than in adult books. This is interesting, given that this book is being spoken of as a “cross-over” book. I’ve written about the particular moral responsibilities of children’s book publishers in this blog post. Some of us – particularly those of us who work with children – said that the book was a useful “tool for discussion” with children, and one of us emphasised the degree to which Auggie’s disfigurement could be read as a metaphor for any kind of “outsiderness”.

We also asked ourselves how far our view of the book as “sentimental” was culturally determined: was there something British about our reaction: some of us said we’d cried at certain points in the story but felt embarrassed or rather ashamed of ourselves for this response, for example. Luckily, there was an American in our group, so we had another perspective to draw on. She, like us, did feel that the sentiment of the book was particularly American, that it was more acceptable to express emotion openly in American culture than it was to do so in the United Kingdom, and that this attitude shapes writing.

STRUCTURAL FLAWS?

The second aspect of the book that many of us criticised was the structure. Some of us liked the multiple narrative voices (though several of us admitted to being sorry to “lose” Auggie’s voice when the narrative first transitioned to Via). But we all felt that some voices were more successful than others. Many of us thought that the story would have been better told without Summer (who we felt was “too saintly” anyway), Justin and Miranda, and thought that the plot points that they delivered (it’s Summer who hints to Jack why Auggie is angry with him) could have been delivered differently. That leaves Auggie, Via and Jack. I do think that the structure of the novel (and I sketched the rough diagram below), in which the narrative is taken forward by one voice, before the next voice backtracks to a previous point in the story, is a challenging one, and it’s a real tribute to R J Palacio that she managed to maintain the pace of this story through this “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” storytelling.


The zig-zag narrative timeline of the story

Discussion of the split narrative led to discussions about individual characters’ narrative arcs or journeys. We agreed that Auggie’s emotional journey was simple: he overcame his anxieties and embraced the world. Some of us felt that he was rather passive: a character to whom things happened, rather than an agent himself (and perhaps this ties in to the question of attitudes to disability, above). I sketched a rough Auggie-ometer (below), using Auggie’s own numerical system to convey his level of happiness, and, for a lot of the book, it does seem to hover around 5. The character many of us were really interested in was Jack, and one of us, at least, felt that there was much more to get out of his story. Some of us questioned that central position of the play in Via’s story, and wanted to hear more about her conflicting emotions about being the sibling of someone who absorbed and drew so much attention.


The Auggie-ometer

Some of us felt that the book started better than it ended, and several of us commented on how precipitate and perfect the ending was as the denouement unfolded rapidly following the climactic attack that Auggie suffers when the school is away (and we spoke about whether it was a “cheat” to take the action out of the school to create this climax). Auggie is accepted, he wins his prize, his nemesis (Julian) leaves the school… and the family gets a replacement dog. All within the space of forty pages.

We were split on the success of the central section of the novel, where the voices fall away, and we have, in the Christmas/New Year school holiday, an exchange of emails and texts and Facebook messages. Some of us felt that it was a problem that these weren’t “owned” by a voice, and didn’t like the lack of clarity as to who knew the contents of the emails. Which of the narrators, if any, for example, have access to Julian’s mother’s email?

Finally, we were also split on whether the author takes too long – a good 80 pages – to tell us what Auggie looks like. Some of us felt that it was fine to go with Auggie’s “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse”, while some of us wanted the description that we finally get earlier.

What do you think of Wonder, and of the points we raised? You can tell us here or on Twitter (@nosycrow, with hashtag #NCGKids), but it would be even better if you would contribute to the comments here

Next month’s book is A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. We’ll write more about it shortly.

This first reading group was, I am sorry to say, massively oversubscribed, but if you would like to join us, or, as it may turn out, join the waiting list for July 11 and beyond (we’re holding this on the second Thursday of every month), then please email tom@nosycrow.com.

Kate's twelve favourite children's books (because it's still 12.12.12)

Posted by Kate on Dec 12, 2012

OK, so here, from the gut and without thinking terribly hard about it, are my own, entirely subjectively chosen, twelve “best” children’s books (I am NOT including any of Nosy Crow’s 58 published books – 58?! How did that happen? – because that would seem, somehow, wrong, like choosing between children) selected as I sit at the table on my first evening back home after a long working week in the US on the twelfth day of the twelfth month 2012.

These are the books that I would choose if I had to give a small child in some exclusively book version of Desert Island Discs a tiny library to last them from 0 to 12 (when they’d be rescued from the island and immediately taken to a really great library and/or bookshop). I know it’s not the most cutting edge of lists, but it’s what comes to mind this evening. The good thing is, of course, that I could come up with a completely different list of must-haves tomorrow (or, and this was written within an hour of posting this, below in the comments section).

But, tonight, this is my list:

Goodnight Moon
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
Winnie The Pooh by A A Milne illustrated by E H Shepard
A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
An anthology of really great poetry. For me, as a child, it was The Book of a Thousand Poems, but it might be The School Bag by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes
A Just William Book
The Hamlyn Encyclopedia of Animals in Colour (long out of print in the edition I had) or something similar

The astute among you will spot that I have listed thirteen books here, but there’s little chance of doing any more than adding to this list before midnight (and, therefore, the end of 12.12.12) UK time.

What are my most egregious omissions, do you think?

What book would you bequeath to your children?

Posted by Tom on Aug 21, 2012

The University of Worcester have conducted a very interesting-sounding survey and asked 2,000 adults which book they’d most like to pass on to their children (A Christmas Carol came first, with 19% of the vote). You can read more about the results on The Guardian’s website – after reading the story, I conducted one of our patented office polls to find out what one title everyone at Nosy Crow would leave to their children.

After much agonising, Kate could still only settle on two books: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury.

Ola chose The Six Bullerby Children by Astrid Lindgren.

Victoria picked Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Imogen has gone for Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.

Kristina would leave Not Now, Bernard by David McKee.

Adrian’s choice is Kim by Rudyard Kipling.

And although I found this immensely difficult (largely, I think, as a result of wholly overthinking the question), I’ve decided on Matilda by Roald Dahl.

In a happy case of coincidence, Philip Ardagh, author of The Grunts, will be on Inheritance Books on Radio4 Extra at 4pm today, discussing the very same subject – tune in to hear his choices!

And if you could only choose one book to leave to your children, what would it be? Leave your answers in the comments below!

Summer Reading round-ups

Posted by Tom on Jul 24, 2012

Last week, Kate blogged about the extraordinary triple-review of The Secret Hen House Theatre in The Guardian, and the cheering effect it had on an otherwise miserable weekend.

Well, the weather may have changed (for the better – the picture above is of the colour of the sky from my window), but the good news continues! Yesterday we learnt that The Secret Hen House Theatre has been selected by Booktrust as one of their Great Summer Reads.

In their review, Booktrust say of the book:

“Helen Peters has drawn on her own childhood on a farm, and her memories of writing and acting out her own plays, to create this lively story with a very convincing rural setting. Peters depicts a cast of strong and believable characters, from Hannah’s overworked and under pressure father, to her stroppy 10-year-old sister Martha, who soon proves herself to be a true ‘drama queen’. With a hint of Pamela Brown’s ‘The Swish of the Curtain’, there is much for aspiring young actors to enjoy here, but this hugely enjoyable story of family, friendship and country life will also have a broad appeal for children at upper primary level.”

And there was more good news to be had elsewhere. The Telegraph and The Independent ran lists of summer reading over the weekend, including both Dinosaur Zoom! by Penny Dale (out next month) and Goldilocks and Just the One Bear by Leigh Hodgkinson.

For The Telegraph, Dinah Hall wrote of Dinosaur Zoom:

“Little boys love dinosaurs. Little boys love trucks. Put the two together in the worryingly appealing Dinosaur Zoom! and you have the recipe for a night-time battle over bedtime stories. Resign yourself to reading the same book over and over again for the next two years – and make sure it’s a girl next time.”

On Goldilocks and Just the One Bear, Hall writes:

“With Hodgkinson’s fetchingly retro midcentury modern illustrations matched by her brilliantly animated text, this is a triumph.”

And in The Independent, Nicholas Tucker writes:

“Penny Dale has a new slant on ever-popular prehistoric animals in her picture book Dinosaur Zoom! Whether driving a blue convertible through the desert or reversing a lorry into the woods, these dinosaurs practically leap from the page.”

What are you summer reading plans?

Right Royal Reading Recommendations for Children

Posted by Kate on Jun 06, 2012

Well, we know that we’re running this blog post a bit late, but it’s been a hectic few days at the Hay Festival, and we haven’t got round to it. Nevertheless, we’ve been putting our minds to the theme of Royal Reads for children and have come up with a regal list.

As a publisher, our own royal preference so far has been for princesses rather than queens.

First, we published our multi-award-winning Cinderella app.

Then, earlier this year we launched our new series The Rescue Princesses, a feisty and irresistible combination of friendship, ninja skills, magic jewels and animals in peril by Paula Harrison.

We’ve just published the first of a new series that’s a cross between a novel and an activity book, Magical Mix-ups, by Marnie Edwards and Leigh Hodgkinson, which features Princess Sapphire, who’s princess tendencies are kept in check by her friend Emerald, a witch.

Later this year, we’ll publish The Princess and The Peas by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton, a story for fussy eaters whether they turn out to be royal or not.

But, generally, royalty is a big theme in children’s books. In fairy tales we meet powerful but often misjudged or misled kings; wicked stepmother queens who are the epitome of evil; and a variety of princesses. We meet princesses who are spoiled girls who have to unlearn their arrogance, girls in peril who need to be rescued, or beautiful (and sometimes talented) young women plucked from obscurity. But all of them get to marry their prince… and the prince is generally, sadly, the least interesting character of all of them – either a rescuer or someone to whom marriage represents rightful elevation and recognition.

The Arthurian legends have also generated many children’s books from Roger Lanceyln Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table through Rosemary Sutcliff’s Tristan and Iseult and T H White’s The Once and Future King to contemporary takes like Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur.

Being made royal as a kind of apogee of self-realisation is part of the Narnia tradition.

Some takes on royalty, though, particularly more recent ones, are less reverential: poems by A A Milne, such as The King’s Breakfast and King John’s Christmas rejoice in the incongruity of royalty and childish foibles like the desire for “a little bit of butter” or “a big, red, India-rubber ball”. The same is true for the conjunction of royalty and underwear in Nicholas Allan’s The Queen’s Knickers and in modern fairy tales like Carol Ann Duffy’s Queen Munch and Queen Nibble, a sort of love-story between some mismatched queens which finishes with some regal gluttony and bouncing. Of course, Terry Deary’s non-fictional Horrible Histories draw out the grotesque and the ridiculous to make royalty memorable.

I don’t have a TV at Hay, but as I see the images of the Royal Family from the Diamond Jubilee, I am reminded that the current British Royal Family (or the idea of them) and Buckingham Palace play a part in numerous books and poems:

The BFG by Roald Dahl
They’re Changing Guards at Buckingham Palace by A A Milne
Two Weeks with the Queen by Morris Gleitzman
The Witches Children and the Queen by Ursula Jones and Russell Ayto

Thanks to Twitter followers who suggested books:

@Louiestowell suggested The Chronicles of Narnia.
@CethanLeahy recommended The Queen’s Nose.
@JodieMarsh31 suggested Me, The Queen & Christopher and Billie Templar’s War

And thanks to @GrahamBancroft for the picture of The Baby.

This post just covers Western story-telling traditions: I am sure that there are many kings, queens, princesses and princes in other traditions, and I am sorry for leaving them out.

But even within the Western story-telling tradition, what right royal reads have we missed out in this blog post that you’d like to see included?

Books to help children and teens understand Remembrance Day

Posted by Kate on Nov 11, 2011

It’s Remembrance Day today, and this year Remembrance Day seems to have a particular grip on public awareness in the UK because it’s the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year of this century.

This morning, Philippa Dickinson, MD of Random House Children’s Books, tweeted the title of a book that she thought would help children to understand Remembrance Day: Teresa Breslin’s Remembrance.

There’s a fair number of children’s non-fiction titles about Remembrance Day itself listed on Amazon, but I am not familiar with them.

Here, though, are four books that I think give children and teenagers a strong sense of the horrors of fighting the First World War:

Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo

Private Peaceful Michael Morpurgo

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (The realities of trench warfare are only a peripheral part of this book, but a powerful one.)

Testament of Youth by Vera Britain

Of course, Remembrance Day isn’t just about soldiers in the First World War, but, though I could think of several great children’s books about the Second World War (among them Anne Frank’s Diary, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Carrie’s War, Goodnight Mister Tom, The Endless Steppe), I couldn’t think of any about the experience of being a soldier or of working with soldiers in wars other than the First World War other than Bernard Ashley’s The Little Soldier.

Please comment or tweet if you can recommend books about the realities of fighting in the First World War or any other wars.

Summer Reading

Posted by Tom on Jul 29, 2011

Now that Summer is most certainly upon us (evidenced at Nosy Crow by the fact that almost everyone is on holiday), the ritual of reading round-ups has been getting its yearly airing in the press. Without wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth – we’ve been very pleased with the inclusion of our books in so many round-ups – there seems to me to be something a little… unsatisfactory about the criteria for these lists. Surely, in order to qualify as a great Summer read, a book ought to have more going for it than a recent publication date.

There is, of course, all kinds of ways one could choose to define a good Summer book. Some – like our Mega Mash-Up series – are brilliant for keeping children occupied on long journeys or during days at home. Others, like Noodle Loves the Beach and Bizzy Bear: Off We Go!, evoke Summer quite literally. And stories like Dinosaur Dig! somehow encapsulate the outdoorsy, spirit-of-adventure feeling that Summer represents when you’re young – or, as Camilla put it to me in an email from the road, “Summer is about liberation isn’t it – from school, parents and routine, and in theory, the weather.”

When I asked for everyone’s suggestions here (before they all left), we decided to restrict ourselves to books that actually take place over the Summer. Needless to say, as with every previous discussion on the subject of favourite books of one sort or another, the debate swiftly dissolved into endless one-upmanship, but out of this, I’m pleased to say, came some truly excellent suggestions.

As ever, we’d love to hear your favourites, so please leave your comments at the bottom of the page or on Twitter.

Adrian suggested some true classics – Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, as well as a long-forgotten gem, The Inviolable Sanctuary by GA Birmingham.

Dom, pipped to the post for The Wind in the Willows, chose Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, saying that, “Some of the scenes from that book were so vivid, they’ve become practically my own memories. It’s the book equivalent of Inception!”

Kirsty has nominated L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Falconer’s Lure by Antonia Forest, and Winnie the Witch at the Seaside, by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul, for “the best infinity pool ever.”

Camilla’s first suggestion is The Enchanted Wood, by Enid Blyton – and she has exactly the measure of a lot of Blyton’s books:
“Ginger beer, doorstep sandwiches and smugglers coves – in fact the very holiday I am just embarking on, though of course it never seemed to rain and I bet they didn’t spend hours sitting in a traffic jam on the A30.”

Some of her other choices are Iggy and Me on Holiday, by Jenny Valentine and Joe Berger, and Shirley Hughes’ Lucy and Tom at the Seaside.

Kate seconded Kirsty’s nomination of The Go-Between, and has also added Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden and What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, both for older readers. Her other suggestions include Lyn Gardner’s Olivia’s Enchanted Summer, out next year, Greenwitch and Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I believe has the distinction of somehow being included in every single one of the “Best of” lists that we produce.

My choices are, for much the same reason as Camilla, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, as well as A Spoonful of Jam by Michelle Magorian and Raspberries on the Yangtze by Karen Wallace, both of which have sort-of magical qualities about them. And finally, I believe I would be remiss not to mention the summer strips of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons (pictured above), which, like all of our choices, cannot capture everything that’s wonderful about Summer, but certainly go a long way towards trying.

Now – over to you!

We’ve had some Twitter recommendations with the hashtag #summerreads:

@rogue_eight suggested The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner

Kate (@nosycrow) pointed out that S.C. Ransom’s books Small Blue Thing and Perfectly Reflected both have strong sense of a London summer.

J K Rowling reveals Pottermore today

Posted by Kate on Jun 23, 2011

J K Rowling reveals the new Pottermore site today.

There’s been a fair bit of speculation as to what the site will be, with at the time of writing, many thinking it’s there to announce new book, judging by the mashable.com vote. There’s been excitement too, over some images, supposedly leaked from the website, which suggest it’s an online game or a fansite.

A key question might be who has what rights… and what rights are left to exploit? This is a J K Rowling announcement and property, not one from her publishers or from Warner Bros.

Sadly, at the time of writing (an hour or so before the announcement), I don’t know what Pottermore is, so I can’t tell you, but as we (well, I don’t know about you, but I’ll be going) anticipate the release of the final film in the Harry Potter sequence, it’s good to have this reminder of the author behind this extraordinary brand. I rather liked this timeline of the rise of Potter.

The picture above is of young women who’d grown up with the Harry Potter books with their copies at the Scholastic street party in NY in 2007 for the launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Scholastic publishes the books in the US, and Bloomsbury does so in the UK). It was taken within hours after the of the release of the book, but these readers had only just got to the front of the queue to get their copies. I was Group MD of Scholastic UK at the time, and lucky enough to be there. It was a very happy experience to be at a book event that drew so many people and created such palpable excitement.

Since Harry Potter, widely described as the exception that proved the rule that children were not excited about reading and that the book industry was in dire straits, we have, of course, seen another – very different – phenomenon emerge from the world of children’s and YA writing: Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight sequence.

Whether these are just two black swans remarkably close together or indicative of the ability of creators – and, I would hope, publishers – to make, shape and present children’s and YA reading experiences that surprise and delight children and teenagers (and adults too) and to do so more than twice remains to be seen.

I look forward to the next phenomenon.

QUICK UPDATE:

Well, we know what Pottermore is now. It is, essentially, a shop for digital content.

The site will be the only source of digital book versions of the seven Harry Potter titles and this is interesting in relation to her publishers and eBookselling, as it appears to establish some unusual precedents, as The Bookseller outlines here)

There’ll be audio downloads too.

There’s 18,000 new words by J K Rowling (not a huge amount, really, given that Philosopher’s stone is 77,000 words long) but perhaps there’s more to come.

There’ll be talking head video of J K Rowling.

There will be, it seems, opportunities for fans to post their own content.

This Wired article and this Guardian article give some more information, and this “Futurebook article” is more reflective: http://futurebook.net/content/pottermore-worlds-biggest-enhanced-e-book. The Bookseller reports on this UK retailer response too.

On the question of the relationship with publishers, The Bookseller spoke Pottermore c.e.o Rod Henwood. Henwood who said: “[The physical publishers] are partners in this. You will see their presence prominent in the shop when it is launched, and they are involved in marketing the site. It is a very collaborative project, all contributing to the marketing and the activity. Their interests are aligned with ours.” He added: “We won’t sell physical books directly, certainly not on the site, but we will be providing links to publishers websites and if they sell the [physical] books there, people can obviously buy them.”

Sebastian Walker died 20 years ago today

Posted by Kate on Jun 16, 2011

Sebastian Walker founded Walker Books in 1979, aged 37. He died 12 years later, having achieved something remarkable. Walker Books was, and is, an excellent children’s book-only publishing company. He started the business in a back bedroom with a handful of colleagues and a bank loan. 12 years later, Walker Books was turning over £17 million (perhaps the equivalent of £27 million in today’s money), and publishing over 300 titles per year. In the years in which he ran the business, Walker published Where’s Wally by Martin Handford, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell and Barbara Frith, Five Minute’s Peace by Jill Murphy, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, and Ten in the Bed by Penny Dale, among other great children’s illustrated books.

I never met him. I was at school when he set up Walker Books, and not many years into my publishing career when he died. I admired him from afar, though, and continue to admire his achievements and legacy. A few months ago, I read his sister, Mirabel Cecil’s, honest, detailed and touching biography, A Kind of Prospero (the title is taken from a phrase Maurice Sendak used to describe Sebastian Walker). Sebastian Walker seems to have been a mass of contradictions: gregarious but isolated; indiscreet but secretive; a gay man who struggled to sustain relationships but someone obsessed with the idea of family (who perhaps built his own “family” when he build his company); someone who, on the one hand, was devoted to his business but, on the other, someone who would nip out of the office for hours to hone his skills as a pianist; a charmer and a terrible snob; someone who demanded and provided enormous loyalty, but who sacked people in a way that was harsh and acrimonious; a publisher who spoke about the importance of literacy but someone who professed little interest in reading himself.

Julie Myerson gives her perspective in this article in The Guardian, My Hero Sebastian Walker. Altogether, he sounds fascinating and amazing… if capricious and difficult!

The Mirabel Cecil biography is also – and this was one of the reasons I wanted to read it – the only book I have found that is in large part about doing what I am spending my time doing: building a children’s book publishing company, beginning at a time of recession, with a clear sense of its own purpose and identity. Mirabel Cecil gives information about turnover, staff numbers, office moves and title count over the years in a way that is useful – and inspiring – to the founder of a business that has been publishing for exactly five months!

The other reason that I read the book is that Nosy Crow has its own connection with Walker Books: Candlewick Press, who will begin publishing books under a Nosy Crow imprint in two months, is the US division of Walker Books. Sebastian Walker made the decision to start up in America, and the company was set up in the year he died. Candlewick Press is a substantial – and the fastest-growing independent – US children’s pulbishing company. It publishes some great books originated by Walker UK (like Lucy Cousin’s Maisy Mouse Books, and Guess How Much I Love You) and is the original publisher of books by best-selling and award-winning authors like Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Desperaux),Megan McDonald (the Judy Moody and Stink books) and M T Anderson (the Octavian Nothing books).

In his twelve years at the helm of Walker Books, Sebastian Walker built a business and a brand; impacted on the standards of picture book production and design internationally; made the UK children’s publishing business more international as publishers sought to emulate his success with co-edition publishing (I wrote about this in my post about this year’s Bologna Book Fair); and challenged bookselling conventions (he struck a deal with Sainsbury’s to publish children’s books under the Sainsbury’s brand, for example). He changed children’s publishing in the UK. Who knows what else he’d have achieved and what new directions he’d have taken had he lived another 20 years?

As Father's Day approaches, a look at dads in books for children

Posted by Tom on Jun 14, 2011

It may well be true that Father’s Day is without a jot of authentic tradition to its name, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to celebrate. At Nosy Crow we’ve been listing our favourite dads in children’s literature all week, and what started out as a harmless pub game between Kate, Camilla and me has spiralled rather dramatically into a mammoth collection of categories, sub-categories and clauses.

Being a bit of a purist about these things, I initially protested to Kate that our list should be comprised only of nice dads, and that bad dads would go against the spirit of the exercise somewhat – this is for father’s day after all! – but we all realised pretty quickly that a lot of the best characters are really awful fathers.

This initial concession led to a proliferation of different categories.

Here are our best categories and our strongest nominations, with, where I felt it necessary, some context or justification. Please add your own categories or nominations in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #kidsbookdads or Facebook!

Good dads:

William from Danny, the Champion of the World (written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake, see the picture above). This is a pretty uncomplicated one – I think we can all agree that William is an amazing and exciting dad (even if he does lead his son into a life of crime). The opening chapter is a really lovely and quite moving tribute to the relationship between father and son.

The dad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming is another good example of an exciting dad.

The dad in Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a favourite of Kate’s.

Big Nutbrown Hare from Guess How Much I Love You (written by Sam McBratney and illustrated by Anita Jeram). Big Nutbrown Hare is never specifically referred to as Little Nutbrown Hare’s father, but I think we’re invited to assume as much.

Gorilla from Gorilla and the dad in My Dad by Anthony Browne are pretty good entries from the outgoing Children’s Laureate…

… And we have two from the incoming one: Stick Man from Stick Man whose quest is to get back to his family tree, and the gruffalo, from The Gruffalo’s Child, who tries to warn his adventurous child against the mouse. Both are written by Julie Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

John Arable from Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole, is an inspired choice by Camilla – the true story of the two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who raised a baby penguin together.

Two excellent suggestions by Kate B were Mr. Brown from Paddington (by Michael Bond) and Pongo from 101 Dalmations (by Dodie Smith).

Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird (by Harper Lee). I have had to lobby quite hard for inclusion of Atticus Finch: on the one hand, he is, of course, the greatest father in any book, but is To Kill A Mockingbird really children’s literature? Well, it was treated as such on its release in 1960, and it’s taught all over the world in schools, so I think that makes it not not children’s literature.

Kate made the very interesting suggestion of Anne Frank’s father, “especially in contrast to how she portrayed her mother”.

My contribution to the sub-category of real-life good dads is Michael Rosen in his poems about his son Eddie, which reach their heartbreaking conclusion in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.

Kate B also suggested James Potter from the Harry Potter books, which to begin with seemed like a silly suggestion to me; certainly not worthy of the Pongo/ Mr. Brown company in which it stood – James isn’t even alive in the books! – but it is, of course, actually an excellent choice. James dies protecting his family from Voldemort – a powerful symbol of fatherly love, and he’s there in Harry’s mind throughout the books.

James Potter segues seamlessly into our next category…

Absent dads:.

There are quite a lot of these in children’s books, ranging from dads who’ve abandoned their children to dads who are absent through no fault of their own.

The father in The Railway Children. I can’t remember his name, but it doesn’t matter – he’ll always be “Daddy, my daddy!” to me, in the manner of Dead Poets Society and “Captain, my captain”.

The fathers in Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women were both examples of Kate’s category of “Absent Dads who are the Deus Ex Machina, resolving things at the end or making the ending happy”, as is the dad in The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr.

Bad dads:

Interestingly, a lot of bad fathers are defined in terms of their absence (in another blog post I’m sure there’d be a lot to say about that…) Some literary dads, however, would leave their offspring a lot better off if they did disappear.

Surely the absolute worst dad ever is Huck Finn’s; the violent town drunk who locks his son in a cabin and leaves him to starve. If we can have To Kill A Mockingbird then we can probably sneak in Huck Finn.

An excellent contender for the same title must be Matilda’s dad (from Roald Dahl’s Matilda)

Kate B points out that many fairy tale dads, such as the fathers in Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and Cinderella, behave shockingly badly towards their offsping, though they’re often under the influence of wicked stepmothers.

Bad dads who become good:

This is a more heartwarming category and it seems to be an popular archetype in children’s books:

The father in our very own Olivia’s First Term, by Lyn Gardner is viewed by some of us as a bit of a bad dad, but others of us felt this was harsh, and that he really was doing his best in difficult circumstances.

Other complicated and difficult dads who are more or less redeemed at the end of the book or books include Lord Asriel, from the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman; Mortmain, from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith; Mr. Darling from Peter Pan; and Colin’s dad in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden

Surrogate dads:

Adrian thought up the “surrogate dads” category:

Ben from Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy.

Tom Oakley from Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian.

Joe Gargery in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

The magnificent Akela from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Finally (!), here are a few that didn’t quite fit anywhere:

Kirsty called the dad in Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging “the best comedy dad”, and nominated the dads in Big Red Bath and Peepo“ for the title of “Best at giving baths dad”. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory demonstrates the “Dad upstaged by grandfather” genre rather well…

As you can see, once you’ve started, it is hard to stop.

Over to you…

Julia Donaldson: Waterstone's Children's Laureate

Posted by Kate on Jun 10, 2011

On Tuesday it was announced that Julia Donaldson is the UK’s new Children’s Laureate.

Julia writes fiction for older children (The Princess Mirror-belle books, The Giants and the Joneses and Dinosaur Diary) and has written a dark and challenging novel for teenagers (Running on the Cracks), but she is best known for her rhyming (though not always rhyming: The Smartest Giant doesn’t rhyme except at the end) picture book texts, of which the best known is The Gruffalo, illustrated by Axel Scheffler, who has been the illustrator of her most successful picture books.

I felt, vicariously, very proud: I’ve been responsible for publishing over twenty of Julia’s books over the years. I first got to know Julia’s work in the early 1990s. She sent the lyrics of a song to Methuen (which has been absorbed into Egmont) where I was working as a rights director. An editor there, Elke Lacey, liked it. I suggested that a friend, who I’d met when he was illustrating a couple of fiction titles for Faber and Faber when I was selling rights there, might be the man to do the pictures. He was Axel Scheffler. The book was A Squash and a Squeeze. Elke was a fiction editor, and hadn’t worked on picture books and she and I worked on A Squash and a Squeeze together. But then she got ill and died, ridiculously young, just before the book was published.

A little later, I moved to Macmillan as a publisher, and Alison Green came with me as editorial director of picture books. One day soon after we’d started, Julia sent Axel the text of The Gruffalo, and, we decided to publish it. It was the resumption of what became a truly astonishingly successful partnership, though Julia’s texts were also wonderfully illustrated by other illustrators including Nick Sharratt, Julia Monks and David Roberts. After ten years, Alison and I moved to Scholastic, and Axel and Julia’s new books were published under the Alison Green Books imprint there, though Julia continued to publish other picture books with Macmillan and has had some books published by other publishers too. The first of several Scholastic Julia-and-Axel books was Tiddler, and the most recent one, The Highway Rat, comes out this autumn.

Julia is many things. She has a command of the combination of rhyme and story that is unparalleled, and that she produces excellent book after excellent book is breathtaking. She’s passionate about her work and a true perfectionist. She’s an absolutely brilliant and indefatigable performer with as much of an affinity with music (she introduced me to this, which is one of the many reasons I am eternally grateful to her) and drama as she has with words. She’s honest, outspoken (even if it’s sometimes about subjects on which we don’t entirely agree!) and approachable. She is, quite properly, famous.

I think Julia will be a highly-visible and committed advocate for reading, for printed books and – at this time of real need – for libraries, and, I am sure, for other things too, as her Laureateship evolves. She’ll be great.

The books we never outgrow

Posted by Tom on May 25, 2011

This week’s Stylist magazine (free outside the tube station, thank you very much) has a very good cover story on the children’s books we never outgrow, complete with rather marvellous illustrations by Quentin Blake. The article fudges a little towards the end, giving a list only of ‘Top 10 Children’s Books’, which is, of course, practically meaningless, but the core idea of un-outgrow-able books is a lovely one.

Stylist includes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte’s Web and Matilda in its list (all favourites of mine), and the second Kate saw it lying open on my desk she pounced, conducting the fastest straw poll I believe I have ever seen. Well, I am pleased to say that ours is a suitably eclectic list, spanning most of the twentieth century, picture books and fiction, autobiography and fantasy, blockbuster names and forgotten gems. Helpfully, we’ve had quite a number of visitors this morning, so this is also a more comprehensive collection than it might otherwise have been. And without further ado, here it is – Nosy Crow’s list of the books we never outgrow:

Kirsty chose Autumn Term by Antonia Forest, the first in the Marlow family series of novels, originally published in 1948.

Dom named Going Solo, the second installment of autobiography by Roald Dahl and the sequel to Boy.

Deb initially wanted Charlotte’s Web but, at the time of writing, had settled on The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer.

Adrian picked, without a second’s hesitation, The Land of Green Ginger, a choice that caused a lot of blank stares amongst the rest of us. A little Wikipedia-ing later and I now know that it was written in 1936 by Noel Langley, who went on to be one of the (many) responsible for the screenplay of The Wizard of Oz.

Steph, insisting that she didn’t want to go for a picture book, and after much deliberation, has gone for Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women.

Tim Wesson, co-creator with Nikalas Catlow of our very own Mega Mash-Up series, has picked a classic of quite a different sort, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat.

Kate Shaw fought off stiff competition from Camilla to be the one who gets to name another Roald Dahl, Danny Champion of the World, as their own (personally I always found the novel’s gritty social realism a little disturbing).

Imogen, remarkably unfazed by my ambushing of her the moment she crossed the threshold, selected Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s absolutely wonderful Jolly Christmas Postman.

Despite this being her idea, Kate W simply could not make a final decision, and seemed visibly pained by my insistence that she only be allowed one choice. However, after much cajoling from me and soul-searching from her, she’s plumped for Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House.

Kate B, after considerable thought, has picked Snoopy, by Charles M. Schulz.

Camilla, once her first instinct had been nixed by my increasingly dictatorial approach to rules, chose A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young.

And, because I’m the one writing this blog, I’m going to allow myself two choices. The first is Susan Varley’s Badger’s Parting Gifts, a criminally overlooked picture book and one of the most moving treatments of grief I have ever read. And the second is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from 1876, about which nothing new can be said, but which still seems fresh and exciting and funny to me on every re-reading.

So, there they are! Between Nosy Crow and Stylist, Roald Dahl gets an excellent showing, as does American literature. But what have we missed? What books have you never outgrown?

Here’s what some of @nosycrow’s Twitter followers have said:

@rachelisking: Mine would be Matilda, although I also love Ursula Bear by Sheila Lavelle (sadly no longer in print)

@LizzyCampbell: Mine would have to be Anne of Green Gables

@Girl___Friday: I third Danny! :) Also Narnia.

@Rebecca Berry: I’ll never outgrow Cobwebs and Creepers. It isn’t in print anymore but I loved it!

@superjed79 JED: Pigs Might Fly by Emily Rodda (Aussie author). Awesome.

@musingsofayalib: I would most definitely choose Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales!

@sharontelfer: Wizard of Earthsea: original and best book about wizard school! Also another vote for the lovely Land of Green Ginger

@Lucy Coats: I’ll never outgrow The Wind in the Willows.P.S. Tell Adrian I used to LOVE the Land of Green Ginger. And Phantom Tollbooth taught me about dodecahedrons!

@macnelliebus: Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books! Sweet, funny, heartful and wise

@kbalzart: The Poky Little Puppy!

@NatashaFarrant1: Anne of Green Gables. Never, ever, ever outgrown. Went to Green Gables last summer and embarrassed children by crying. A lot.

@loops777: Em…where to start?!I NEVER tire of the wonders of Mr Dahl.Hilariously witty. Always a special place for ‘A Little Princess’ too!

@rookibooks: Brambly Hedge series. Kids & i named one of our dog walks after them and we take popcorn for the mice! #kidsbooks #notoutgrown

@SarahTFergusson: Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Beautiful and scary!

@cathiesue: Caddie Woodlawn

@Discover_Story: Tom’s Midnight Garden haunted me. I’m still hoping to find my real enormous garden.

@utzy: Now We Are Six. Bought my daughter old copy in a bookshop yesterday, and yes she will be six soon

@GilesCroft: The Man Who Was Magic by Paul Gallico. Time for a reprint.

@moongolfer:Agaton Sax

@classygenes: The Phantom Tollbooth! Fab! Still have it on my bookshelf. Who needs 3D when u have Juster’s imagination?

@tomfinnerty: Lovely article, thanks! I’d go for Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

@KathLangrish: Finn Family Moomintroll. And – well, most of them, really. LOVED The Land of Green Ginger!

@AnabelMarsh: Another vote for Anne of Green Gables. Matthew’s death is a sobfest every time

@georgialeaper: The Jolly Postman, and Minnie&Ginger by Barry Smith http://amzn.to/msSyXK – Timeless lovestory

@Alex_T_SmithThe Tiger who Came to Tea – I’ve always wanted to go to a cafe in my pjs like the girl in the story

@vivlives001: Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

@dansumption: Another vote for Agaton Sax. Also, the Uncle stories.

@rebecsmart: The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

@JustinSomper: Where the Wild Things Are + Ahlberg’s The Mighty Slide + Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ;-)

@neeshed: my childhood favourite was Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat – just started it with kids and still special

@Gem_Clair: Dogger, Shirley Hughes. (But I can’t talk about it because it still makes me cry!)

@alice_murphy: I also cried in the Book Shop about Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book. And Badger’s Parting Gifts… Among many others!

@janeconsidine: My childhood choice Where the wild things are.

@lesleytspencer: Eight Children and a Truck by Anne Catherina Vestly. Still got my battered copy:)

@Chiddle84: Ooh, the Jolly Postman!

@mightydanzy: The Monster at the end of This Book featuring the furriest, most favorite Muppet, Grover.

@katybeale: The Hobbit!

@Dreamteamsoft: Totally love Danny Champion of the World !

@LondonBessie: Gotta be Teddy Robinson. Just fantastic – funny, sweet, a bit bonkers and totally charming.

@Hilary Foster: The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark; The Dark Is Rising hairs standing up at memory

@stevemaythe1st: Any of Tove Jannson’s Moomin books – wonderful evocative stories & illustrations

@murhilltypist: ‘National Velvet’, ‘The Thirteen Clocks’, and ‘Are you my mother?’: the moving tale of a fledgling and a JCB.

@LuLhullier: In English, all Shel Silverstein books #kidsbookillneveroutgrow

@clarefenn: Mine are Danny Champion of the World and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

@julietanne: Hungry Caterpillar, Hairy McClary, The Little White Horse, The Tiger Child

@MissCellany: Beauty: Robin McKinley, Howl’s Moving Castle: Diana Wynne Jones and entire Little House on Prairie saga. And Mog! How could I forget Mog, The Forgetful Cat? (

@FlossieTeacake: YES TO PAMELA BROWN. Have you seen: http://bit.ly/mdNk9C

@bowbrick: ‘Peepo’ by the Ahlbergs. A board book worthy of the Booker. Literally one of my favourite books ever

@le_robertson: Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton. you have to love silly turkeys. ;)

So tell us on Twitter (there’s even a hashtag now, as we’ve only included Twitter nominations from people who sent theirs as a reply) or comment below.

Axel Scheffler talking about Pip and Posy on the radio

Posted by Kate on Apr 15, 2011

Today Axel was interviewed by 12 local radio stations about the first two books in his new Pip and Posy series, Pip and Posy: The Super Scooter and Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle , which have just been published.

Lots of interviewers wanted to talk to him about his best-known books, The Gruffalo, which he illustrated and Julia Donaldson wrote and which I published at Macmillan perhaps almost 12 years ago. The book is regularly described as a modern classic and is the basis of an Oscar-nominated short film, not to mention a merchandising phenomenon, so this isn’t terribly surprising.

The Pip and Posy books are about a boy rabbit called Pip and a girl mouse called Posy. They all explore a bad thing that happens, that makes either Pip and Posy very sad, or angry or scared, and then the books show how they resolve those problems. So in Pip and Posy: The Super Scooter, Posy takes Pip’s scooter without asking and then she falls off it. Even though Pip was furious with Posy, he gives her a hug, and, though Posy’s hurt her knee, she cheers up and they both go and play in the sand pit. Though the stories are short, Axel wanted to communicate in the illustrations how angry Pip is and how sad and sorry Posy is. In Pip and Posy: The Little Puddle, Pip has an accident and does a wee on the floor. He’s really embarrassed, but Posy makes it all OK. He borrows some clothes, and the next time he has to do a wee, he does one in the potty. So every story has an low point – and “oh, dear” moment – and then, at the end, a high point – a “hooray” moment.

Axel’s ability to capture, for example, the expression on the face of a male rabbit asked to choose between two alternative dresses to wear after a puddle-on-the-floor accident is one of the reasons we think he’s utterly brilliant!

Here’s Axel talking to BBC radio Humberside:

The interview, together with interviews on BBC Humberside, BBC Ulster, BBC Bristol, BBC Wiltshire and BBC Cumbria, will be broadcast today, with others following over the next few days.

Bonkers-busy before the Bologna Children's Book Fair

Posted by Kate on Mar 26, 2011

Today we’re off to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

This is big bananas for us, and we have been working flat-out to get ready for it.

It is one of two weeks in the year – the other is the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, but Bologna’s the big one – when we meet the non-UK publishers we’ll do business with for the rest of the year. At Bologna, we have just 30 minutes (20 if they have to queue for the loo before the appointment) to impress a foreign publisher with our books. The aim of the game is to sell, or at least interest them in buying, the right to publish our books in translation.

For the last few months, Anne-Marie’s been putting together the schedule of selling appointments for me and for Adrian. We have appointments every half-hour from 9.00am to 5.30pm without breaks for three-and-a-half days.

For the last month, since the launch of The Three Little Pigs app, Ed and Will have been working with Deb on our next app in the 3D Fairy Tale series, Cinderella.

For the last month, too, Imogen’s been collecting together final print and freight prices for books of many different sizes and kinds – board books and pop-up books and picture books, and working out how much we have to sell them for in order to stay in business. This is a hard task: we always want our books to be the best they can be – to have the heaviest paper, the most spectacular pop-ups the most unusual touch-and-feels – and it’s tough to compromise!

For the past few weeks we’ve been receiving artwork from illustrators. Some of it arrived in time for us to proof it, but most of it, because we are still new and building our list and publishing sooner after artwork delivery than is ideal, did not, so we’ve had to make dummies using photocopies of the art stuck into blank books. This is an unbelievably time-consuming, tricky, painstaking and monotonous task, and Steph and Nia, in addition to doing lots of last-minute designing, have been working on this tirelessly with Camilla. Nia finished the very last one at 10.30pm yesterday evening.

And for the past few weeks we’ve also been pulling together words and pictures to add to the books section of our website to announce some of the books we’ll be taking to Bologna, including The Grunts, the acquisition of which we announced to a great response on Wednesday.

For the past day or so, we’ve had a steady stream of meetings with people who are in the UK before they go to the book fair – our Japanese agent, Noriko Hasagawa, for example – who I mentioned in a recent post – and Liz Bray from our Australian distributors, Allen and Unwin. They have gamely picked their way through the chaos of the office, and brushed scraps of paper and fur-fabric (for touch-and-feel books) from chairs before sitting down at a table that is slightly sticky with glue.

For the past day or so, too, I have finally been getting down to working on the slides for the first Tools of Change Conference to happen in Bologna, at which I am – eek! – the first keynote speaker on Sunday.

And yesterday, as if we didn’t have enough to do, we bought (or at least confirmed the deals on) three picture book texts, illustrations for two picture books and a debut novel.

Next week is the most important week of our year.

Wish us luck!

Hope tree for 2011

Posted by Kate on Dec 31, 2010

Kate says:

“Today I’m going to share a bit of family tradition – quite a new one that we’ve been doing for maybe five or so years. We put some winter twigs into a jug, and put fairy lights on them and decorate the branches with stars and moon decorations – just stars and moons. By the jug, we have a bowl with a pen, and small squares of coloured paper and ribbon cut into short lengths. Over the course of the run up to Christmas, Christmas Day and the days after Christmas, we write our hopes for the coming year – for ourselves, or family and friends and for bigger things – on the squares of coloured paper. We roll them up and tie them to the branches. They’re secret: you don’t tell anyone else what you hope for. It’s our hope tree.

“As the days go by, there are more and more hopes on the tree: this is what it looked like this morning, and we have friends coming to dinner today so I expect there will be more before the hopes-on-the-tree deadline of midnight tonight.

“On 6 January – sometimes earlier, but never before 1 January – we’ll burn the “hopes” on a small bonfire outside – if it doesn’t rain, and in the stove if it does.

“I thought that this idea was entirely original. But of course, it’s not. My elder child pointed out that I had pinched it from references to the Japanese (summer) festival of Tanabata, that I had read as a child in Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. In the book,Nona, unhappy and lonely in England, makes a wish tree as she is inspired to learn about Japanese culture by the arrival of two Japanese dolls. She ends up making a house for them while she herself finds herself increasingly at home. It’s all there in the book: the stars, the tree, the wishes (or hopes) and even the burning of the wishes (or hopes). I loved that book as a child, but I’d completely forgotten that part of it until my daughter read it and reminded me. It’s interesting to think that something from a children’s book lay forgotten and dormant in my head for almost three decades: just one reminder, for me, of the unexpected power of reading for pleasure as a child.”

And happy 2011 from all the Crows: we hope that your hopes are fulfilled.

What are you re-reading for Christmas?

Posted by Kate on Dec 25, 2010

Every Christmas, Kate and her children re-read some or all of several books aloud: The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden; The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams illustrated by William Nicholson; A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas illustrated by Edward Ardizzoni; and The Lion, the Unicorn and Me by Jeanette Winterson (blurry, but there in the photo).

The last of these is a short story that appeared in The Times just before Christmas in 2007. Kate read it first in a car on the way to Scotland. She loved it. It made her cry – several times. It made her smile – several times. She read it to her children for the first time on Christmas Eve that year.

She didn’t know Jeanette Winterson, so, on Boxing Day, she sent an email to Jeanette’s website, and, eventually, though it wasn’t easy, she was really proud and happy to acquire the text for Scholastic where it was published for Christmas 2009.

It’s a lyrical, mystical, funny retelling of the nativity story from the point of view of the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem.

It is a story she finds very hard to read aloud (because she gets very choked up), but she finds that’s true about T S Eliot’s The Journey of The Magi (and the end of The Story of Holly and Ivy, actually).

Are there books that you or your family go back to every year at Christmas? Do please tell us about them.

And Merry Christmas.

And now... best books for ten (10) year-old boys

Posted by Kate on Oct 17, 2010

Having written a post on best books for ten year-old girls, Kate felt that she couldn’t not write the companion post on best books for ten year-old boys, not least because it’s another rich seam of terrific writing. Of course, there are many overlaps between books ‘for’ boys and books ‘for’ girls (and the gender divide was really driven by the twitter enquiry that prompted the list of best books for girls), but there are differences too. However much of an old-style Doc-Marten-wearing feminist Kate was (is…), and however much she swore that she would not encourage her own children into gender stereotypes, she’s come to accept differences, whether innate or cultural. in boys’ and girls’ reading and playing preferences. It is better, she thinks, for children to read things that appeal to them, than to try to push them into “appreciating” things that they don’t really respond to.

Once again, the reading levels vary and these are not all literary books. Kate thinks children should be encouraged to read widely.

Classics:

The Narnia stories by C S Lewis
The Just William books by Richmal Crompton
The Tintin books
The Asterix books
The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Funny books:

The Eddie Dickens books by Philip Ardagh
The Larklight books by Philip Reeve
The Mr Gum books by Andy Stanton
The Rover books by Roddy Doyle (especially The Meanwhile Adventures)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
The Jiggy McCue books by Michael Lawrence
Our forthcoming Mega Mash-up books
(And, since this blog post was first published, The Grunts series Philip Ardagh and our Danny Danger books by Adam Frost.)

Time-slip/historical books:

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
Goodnight, Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian
The Wolves of Willougby Chase by Joan Aitken
The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Legendeer Trilogy by Alan Gibbons
Gladiator by Simon Scarrow and Richard Jones is likely to appeal, and publishes in February 2011
The Eagle of the Ninth and other historical fiction by Rosemary Sutcliffe
Cue for Treason and other historical fiction by Geoffrey Treese
The Machine Gunners and other historical fiction by Robert Westall
Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo

“Ordinary boy”/school stories:

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cloud Busting by Malorie Blackman
Three Weeks with the Queen by Maurice Gleitzman
Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout
Goal by Michael Morpurgo
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
The Jamie Johnson football books by Dan Freedman

Fantasy/adventure stories:

The Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz
The Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer
The Cherub books by Robert Muchamore
The Young Bond books by Charlie Higson
Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Charlie Bone books by Jenny Nimmo
Harry Potter books by J K Rowling
Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (a bit top-end of the age-group, this)
No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (a bit top-end of the age-group, this)
Stig of the Dump by Clive King
Our forthcoming Danny Danger books
Varjak Paw by S F Said
Born to Run by Michael Morpurgo
Arthur, High King of Britain by Michael Morpurgo

“Real-life” stories:

The My Story books (actually fictionalised, but still based on real historical events)
The Horrible Histories books
The Horrible Science books
The Horrible Geography books
Boy by Roald Dahl

Best books for ten (10) year-old girls

Posted by Kate on Oct 17, 2010

One of Kate’s children recently turned ten, and, as it happens, someone @nosycrow follows on Twitter has just asked for reading recommendations for ten year-old girls (in this case, a ten year-old girl who likes to read).

To be a girl of ten reading in English is to be spoiled for choice. Not only are some of the great classics of children’s literature yours for the taking, but the last twenty years has seen a fantastic flowering of great writing for pre-adolescent children particularly in the UK, but also, it seems to Kate, in the US and in Germany. Here are the books that instantly sprang to Kate’s mind, some from her own childhood, some from 20+ years publishing children’s books (and she did publish some of the books below), and some from her experience of her own children’s preferences. No ten year-old reader is like any other ten year-old reader. Some of the books below are easier reads than others, and some more literary than others, but Kate’s a great believer in a varied reading diet. The categorisation was the first one that came to mind and is just a way of breaking up the list, and there are many others. Many books could be in more than one category, of course: Millions is very funny as well as being about an ordinary boy, and Eddie Dickens is historical as well as hilarious.

What are your suggestions? What has she missed?

Classics:

Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery
Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
The Narnia stories by C S Lewis
The Little House on the Prarie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Just William books by Richmal Crompton
Matilda by Roald Dahl
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier

Funny books:

The Eddie Dickens books by Philip Ardagh
Molly Moon books by Georgia Byng
Larklight books by Philip Reeve
Ally’s World series by Karen McCombie
The Mr Gum books by Andy Stanton
The Ramona books by Beverley Cleary
The Rover books by Roddy Doyle (especially The Meanwhile Adventures)
The Humphrey books by Betty G Birney
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson
(And, since this blog post was written, My Best Friend and Other Enemies by Catherine Wilkins.)

Time-slip/historical books:

Charlotte Sometimes by Philippa Pearce
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phippa Pearce
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
The Wolves of Willougby Chase by Joan Aitken
Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
The Rose books by Holly Webb
Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean
(And, since this blog post was written, Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge.)

“Ordinary girl (boy)”/school stories:

Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton
St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton
Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Cloud Busting by Malorie Blackman
Most of Jacqueline Wilson’s work (though things like Love Lessons are a bit old for 10 year-olds), but Tracy Beaker is Kate’s personal favourite
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Ida B by Katherine Hannigan
Three Weeks with the Queen by Maurice Gleitzman
(And, since this blog post was written, the Olivia series by Lyn Gardner and the brilliantly-reviewed The Secret Hen house Theatre by Helen Peters)

Fantasy stories:

Ink Heart by Cornelia Funke
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Charlie Bone books by Jenny Nimmo
Harry Potter books by J K Rowling
Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan
Into the Woods by Lyn Gardner
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (a bit top-end of the age-group, this)
No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (a bit top-end of the age-group, this)
Stig of the Dump by Clive King

“Real-life” stories:

Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah (a bit top-end of the age-group, this)
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig
The My Story books, especially Titanic (actually fictionalised, but still based on real historical events)
The Horrible Histories books
The Horrible Science books

The Crow Expects ...

Posted by Imogen on Jun 30, 2010

Now, Kirsty could never be described as a lover of football but she does like a bit of the World Cup. There’s something strangely comforting about it, the global village and all that, the unifying power of competitive sport… Or maybe she’s been drinking too much Coca-Cola. Anyway, it’s been an enjoyable experience, the bits she’s seen, and she’s even starting to like that weird buzzy noise.

Crows probably aren’t very good at football, their legs are too spindly. But expectations in the Nest are high, very high. We want the best fiction, the best illustrations, the best the best the best. And, unlike a certain team, we promise to deliver. So if you’ve got a brilliant novel for 8-12 year olds, let us take it under our wing. The Crow shoots, the Crow scores!