Redwall – Brian Jacques

Yet another book I wish I had known about when I was a child. I’m absolutely thrilled to know there are more in the series – I just need to find the time to read them!

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This is the first in a series of wonderful children’s books about a peaceful community of field mice who live within the quiet confines of Redwall Abbey. The brotherhood slumbers quietly on the edge of the Moss Wood, providing a place of humble solitude and unquestioned refuge for any who seek it. They live a simple wholesome life enjoying the good things nature has to offer – like goat’s milk, honey and nut brown ale. I feel warm inside just thinking about it.

Of course, it takes conflict to make a story, and so be prepared, once you open this book, for the lives of the Redwall mice to be thrown into turmoil. Not a day is given over to the lives within the Abbey before Cluny the Scourge, a vicious, one-eyed rodent, whose nightmarish existence is the stuff of legends, rolls in from the wild woods beyond the horizon. The noisome creature sets his sights on Redwall Abbey, determined to turn the warm stone walls into a fetid nesting ground for himself and his band of vile vagabonds. This is the beginning of an epic battle, the likes of which the peaceful brotherhood of Redwall has not seen for hundreds of years.

Our unlikely hero is a small, clumsy field mouse named Matthias, a new addition to the Abbey, who has a lot to learn about the complex history of his new home as he fights to defend its boundaries from Cluny’s deadly crew. It will take more than just the mice to defend the Abbey, but enlisting help from their neighbours is not as easy as just asking for it. The Moss Woods are rife with historical conflicts, and the mice, though peaceful, have a rather unsettling past. Beyond tribal feuds, though, are two evils more sinister than the sins of every benign entity combined, and only communal action can ensure that these dark presences do not forever disrupt the quiet equilibrium of the forest.

This book has a lot to offer to different readers. On one level it provides a fantastic amount of action for children’s literature – I was inadvertently clenching my teeth while reading about the battle between the mice and Cluny, and was filled with genuine terror at the idea of ‘old poison teeth’. On a personal level, though, I could have happily read all about the mice of Redwall without there being any kind of altercation. Redwall is the kind of community that one feeds on hearing about. Like the woodland animals in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – specifically Mr and Mrs Badger – or any one of Beatrix Potter’s books. I am in love with the life that the mice live – it is so wholesome and wonderful; a simple, healthy life full of good things. The Abbey stands as a natural organ of the forest and the mice and the other creature that live within the walls keep it running like a well oiled bicycle – what more could I ask for in a book? A quiet life makes for content reading.

I was really taken by the complexity of Jacques’ characters. My personal favourite is Basil Stag Hare, whose ghost-like reflexes, mildly misquoted malapropisms and insatiable appetite are nothing short of genius. When it comes to characters that are also hares, Basil Stag is easily one of the most excellent I have ever come across*. He is joined by a whole host of unforgettable faces, Ambrose Spike the greedy hedgehog, Constance the formidable badger, and Warbeak, a sparrow who is much too big for her tiny, tiny boots.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first dip into the realms of Redwall Abbey. Jacques has crammed so much into this first book, and I have no doubt the rest will not disappoint. I would strongly recommend giving Redwall a try if you are a fan of young adult literature, tales of idyllic livelihoods interrupted, or anything containing anthropomorphic mice.

*This may sound oddly specific, but as a lifelong fan of Harriet’s Hare it is no mean feat

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots – Beatrix Potter

It’s today! It’s today!

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I was unbelievably excited to wake up this morning to an email informing me that The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots would be waiting for me when I returned from work. Obviously I would have preferred to wait by the front door for the postman, but somehow I managed to get through the day at work. I then tore home, dived into the book and had it finished before supper time.

I’ve always been a huge Beatrix Potter fan. My childhood box set was always a prized possession of mine and was subject to more than one show-and-tell session back in primary school. The Tailor of Gloucester was always my favourite and I still love to pull the book out and watch the BBC adaption around Christmas time. If there is anything more magical than animals behaving like humans it is animals behaving like humans in the snow. Simpkins in his snow boots is one of my favourite images of all time.

When I heard there was a new book by Beatrix Potter being published I was over the moon. To think that the manuscript remained hidden for over 100 years, only to emerge to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s death – it is almost as though she had planned it. I couldn’t wait to see what this story, written ten years after all her other much-loved tales, had in store for me.

The newest addition to the collection tells the tale of a very serious, well-behaved black cat by the name Catherine St. Quintin who likes nothing more than to sneak out at night and poach animals with her air gun. Like all of Beatrix Potter’s tales it is filled with funny escapades with the characters falling into one or two unfortunate scrapes, before ultimately learning a rather valuable lesson. Diehard fans of Beatrix Potter will be delighted to encounter a ‘stout buck rabbit in a blue coat’, who bares more than a striking resemblance to a mischievous young bunny once seen stealing radishes from Mr Macgregor’s garden – it looks like Mrs McGregor never did get her winter coat – as well as one or two other familiar faces and more than a few news ones.

Of course, half of the delight in a children’s book is in the illustrations and while I will admit I was slightly surprised when I saw that Quentin Blake was illustrating the book,  I think the result is absolutely stunning. Who better to illustrate a book by one of Britain’s most-loved children’s authors than one of Britain’s most loved children’s book illustrators? His drawings are nothing like Beatrix Potter’s, but I wouldn’t have liked to read a book where Beatrix Potter’s style was mimicked. Blake doesn’t attempt to fill Beatrix Potter’s shoes, he merely pays homage to her work, and does a remarkable job of it. The illustrations are perfect, wonderfully encapsulating the action and humour in Beatrix Potter’s latest tale.

What’s more Blake’s illustrator’s note, where he hopes that Beatrix potter would have approved of his work and speaks of his pride at being given the opportunity to illustrate such a book, is so sweet and endearing. I truly think he has done wonders with the text and brought the book to life in a way that none other than Beatrix Potter herself could have. My one slight disappointment is that the few drawings that Beatrix Potter did create to accompany the story could not be included in the publication.

Overall, however, I think this book is a real delight to read, filled with Beatrix Potter’s classical charm, but with slightly more adult escapades than the previous publications. There is also a subtle, perhaps satirical ribbon running through it which suggests that what is natural does not always come naturally.

There is no doubt that it was written by the Beatrix potter we all know and love, but the style is  different to her earlier works. Not worse, just different. Of course, we can’t know whether there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to change her writing style, or if the book was left in a somewhat unfinished state. Whatever the case may be, it is a truly charming read and I will happily place it alongside my other Beatrix Potter books, and no doubt look on it time and time again.

I know the publication is a couple of months too late, but happy birthday Beatrix, may you continue to delight us, and future generations for many, many years to come.

 

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“A clockwork heart can’t replace the real thing.” ― Dru Pagliassotti

I received this book in my August Prudence and the Crow box, the book selection was a fantastic bit of luck, as I’d been really craving classic children’s literature – between you and me I’m becoming more and more convinced that Prudence and the Crow are able to read my mind. From the a quick look at the front cover and the name alone – I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, right? – I was expecting story about a mouse that fell in love with a windup mouseling. I’m sure you get the idea, something similar to Pinocchio, but English – so, perhaps with afternoons spent playing in dolls’ houses pretending to drink tea. I could not have been more mistaken, but, far from being disappointed, I absolutely loved it.

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“Where are we?” the mouse child asked his father. His voice was tiny in the stillness of the night.
“I don’t know” the father replied.
What are we, Papa?”
“I don’t know. We must wait and see.” 

the-mouse-and-his-childOn a cold winter’s evening a tin father and son emerge from a box to stand on display in a toy shop window. Outside the cold wind blows and tramp passes by, momentarily taken by the sight of the toys. Brand new, and confused, the mouse and his child struggle to comprehend what it means to be windup toys and the thought of the life that lays before them makes the poor child cry.

It is not long before they are swept away, bought by a family, destined for a life spent dancing beneath the Christmas tree – the life of a windup. It is a simple life, spent quietly fulfilling their duties; until they break the ancient clock-work rules and must face the consequences.

Discarded in the snow the mouse and his child begin a wholly different journey than the one written for them. They are rescued, repaired by a tramp, and chased by a terrible force that would see all windup toys turned to slaves. Through all that they endure the mouse and the child wish for only one thing, a place to call their own – a magnificent house, a mother, and a sister.

I wish I could say that I had read this book as a child. This is definitely a tale that will take on an entirely different meaning, and gain resonance as a person grows older. I spoke about the book with a colleague when I had just started reading it, and he said that he loved it as a child, but upon revisiting it as an adult realised, quite simply ‘wow, this is really deep stuff’. I could try and say it more eloquently, but that is the bare bones of it. The Mouse and his Child is an incredible tale of quest and determination for children, and when viewed with an adult’s mind it is absolutely brimming with philosophical thoughts, lessons, analogies, and big, gaping questions about life.

“All roads, whether long or short, are hard,” said Frog. “Come, you have begun your journey, and all else necessarily follows from that act. Be of good cheer. The sun is bright. The sky is blue. The world lies before you.” 

The humanity of Hoban’s characters is truly incredible. The authors has taken windup toys and elevated them to the next level. Each toy, however minor their role in the tale, has its own unique drive and personality: the once-proud elephant, now plushless, and with the missing ear and eye patch; the tin seal, long separated from her colourful ball; the sweet child, forever asking questions, always looking, and understanding; and even the donkey – the poor, poor, donkey – who once dared to complain. These creatures may be made of clockwork, but they are no less human than you and I. They are exhausted, frightened, frustrated, despondent, sentimental, joyous, hopeful, and forever working towards their goals. Life throws its hurdles, and each one is tackled, even if it does take a short lifetime. Can you imagine what it would be like to spends years at the bottom on a pond? Through all this, they grow stronger, never losing sight of their aims, growing, learning and interacting with all whom cross their path. Just one more step, they will get there in the end.

The mouse and his child, who had learned so much and had prevailed against such overwhelming odds, never could be persuaded to teach a success course… The whole secret of the thing, they insisted, was simply and at all costs to move steadily ahead, and that, they said, could not be taught. 

The Mouse and his Child is a truly phenomenal children’s book, which has just as much, if not more, to offer to adult readers. I feel really thankful to have discovered this book, and look forward, truthfully, to a time when I can share it with the children in my life.

A fairytale weekend

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” ― G.K. Chesterton

After being treated to these beautiful books by a good friend I spent an otherwise dismal weekend holed up in my new reading room indulging my inner child.

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Chris Riddel

23301545The Sleeper and the Spindle is a great example of a children’s book made for an adult audience. Think Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty, with some dark magic thrown in. I love modern twists on traditional fairy tales, almost as much as I love traditional fairy tales, so this book was always going to go down well.

High in a tower in a kingdom far, far away a beautiful princess lies enchanted in her bed. Lately, the spell which keeps her slumbering has begun to spread, and the people of neighbouring villages have fallen victim to the sickness. Many brave souls have tried to reach the tower in the hopes of breaking the enchantment only to lose their lives, impaled on an impenetrable fortress of rose thorns. On what is to be the eve of her wedding, a young queen decides to set aside her matrimonial plans to rescue the sleeping princess. Accompanied by a team of crass dwarves, the queen takes up her sword and chain mail and travels deep into the mountains to reach the sleeping kingdom.

The Sleeper and the Spindle combines the traditional themes we all know and love with an exciting modern twist, to create an enchanting, yet ominous tale – as delicately unsettling as it is deliciously captivating.

Oh and the illustrations are nothing short of spectacular.

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Russian Fairy Tales – Alexander Afanasyev, with illustrations by Ivan Bilibin

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If you saw my post about Children’s Stories from Japanese Fairy Tales and Legends you’ll no doubt be familiar with my fascination with foreign fairy tales. In fact, this interest does not apply just to fairy tales – myths, legends and ghost stories are also high up my list of interests. I find it really interesting to see how stories from different nations compare to those I grew up with and know so well.

This collection of tales was written, or rather, recorded by renowned Russian folklorist Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev in the mid-19th century. The book contains some of the best-known Russian folktales, including: Vasilisa the BeautifulThe Feather of Finist the Falcon; The Frog-Tsarevna; and Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf.

Of all the characters I came across in this volume, and there are a few who feature in more than one tale, I was particularly taken by Baba Yaga.

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Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic witch who lives in a small wooden hut at the edge of the forest. Now, this description may not seem so different from a lot of other witches in children’s stories, but Baba Yaga has so many fantastic quirks, the likes of which I would never have imagined.  Her hut stands on hen’s legs, and will only lower itself to permit entry when in receipt of a certain rhyme. It is also surrounded by a picket fence adorned with the skulls of Baba Yaga’s victims, the eye sockets of which glow in the night.  Instead of a broomstick, Baba Yaga travels through the forest in a giant mortar, driving herself forward with a pestle in her right hand, while sweeping the forest floor with a broom in her left hand. Oh and she is also often followed by spirits.

I love her.

Having no familiarity with Russian folklore prior to this, I feel the collection gave a good introduction to some of the most famous characters in Russian folk literature. It’s a beautiful volume, and some of the illustrations are so elaborate I feel I could have spent hours studying them.

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I’m having another … Wordless Wednesday

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“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C. S. Lewis

May bank holiday – I like books that tell a story

A long weekend is the perfect excuse for a leisurely Saturday. Today we headed into town for a spot of lunch and a wander around market, and I just couldn’t resist slipping into the Oxfam bookshop on Sidney Street.

After treating myself to a few new books last week, I promised myself I wouldn’t buy anything. I reasoned that I would only go in for a look, just to be around the books for a bit and soak up that great used-book smell. After spending a few idle moments perusing the classic texts I stumbled upon the collectables – truth be told, I was looking for the children’s section, but it seems they’ve rearranged the place since my last visit.

Nestled in amongst some dusty hardbacks by authors whose names I’d never heard, and ancient cook books the likes of which might have graced my Grandfather’s kitchen shelves, I found a well-loved volume of children’s stories.

Children’s Stories From Japanese Fairy Tales and Legends

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I love old children’s books. Our sitting room contains a bookshelf dedicated to children’s literature, where all the old fables and fairytales I was given as a child sit amongst Sebastian’s French Tin Tin comics and several tatty picture books by Hungarian photographer Ylla.

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I knew I wanted to add this one to my collection before I had even taken it off the shelf. I’ve never read a Japanese fairy tale, and was interested to see how they would compare to my childhood favourites by Hans Christian Andersen. A quick glimpse inside the book let me know I was making the right choice.

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I’ve never managed to pick up an old book with an inscription without buying it. There is something so beautiful about an inscription, as though it gives the book a story of its very own. Questions about the previous owner immediately started entering my mind. Were they a little boy, or a little girl? Why was Daddy gifting the book alone? Are they the only previous owner?

After trying, and failing, to strike up a conversation with the gentleman behind the till by informing him, somewhat excitedly, that there was an inscription in the book, I wandered home with my loot.

I spent the afternoon sat out sunshine getting to know my new friend, running my fingers lovingly over the pages to feel the indentations left by the old printing presses, and reading the first tale ‘The Daughter of the Moon’ – a charming story about a bamboo cutter who adopts a beautiful fairy.

As much as I liked the first tale, the thing that got me really excited about this book was the illustrations. There is the occasional printed colour plate often found in children’s books from the early 20th century, but there are also images included in the text that have been coloured in by hand.

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Towards the front of the book the pictures have been filled in delicately, with something resembling watercolour paints (above left). I had a look at other editions of the books online, and the images were definitely in no more than black ink when the book was first published. They must have been coloured in by one of the previous owners – was it the child who first received the book from ‘Daddy’ in 1930?

As I got further into the book I noticed that the images were no longer coloured with paint, but instead with coloured pencils, and the signature scratch of a much younger child (above right).

Without knowing anything about the previous owners, I can’t know for sure who coloured the pictures in, but this makes it all the more exciting. This book has its own mystery; a secret story told only in marks left behind by the ghosts of the past. If the first owner of the book did contribute to the coloured in images, and I like to think that they did, I do hope ‘Daddy’ wasn’t too cross.

Charlotte’s Web named best children’s book of all time!

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” ― C. S. Lewis

I was over the moon today to learn that Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White had been voted the best children’s book of all time.

The 1952 tale, about a lovable pig named Wilbur who is saved from the slaughter thanks to his unlikely friendship with a resourceful spider named Charlotte, was named number one in a list of 151 books chosen by critics in a poll by BBC Culture.

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The initial selection was whittled down to a list of the 21 top books in children’s literature, a diverse selection of books which provides a charming glimpse into children’s literature of the past two centuries.

1. Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis
3. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
4. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
5. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
6. The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
7. Winnie-the-Pooh – A. A. Milne
8. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
9. A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin
10. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
11. The Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
12. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
13. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler – E. L. Koenigsburg
14. The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster
15. His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
16. Matilda – Roald Dahl
17. Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
18. Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren
19. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
20. Goodnight Moon – Margaret Wise Brown and Pat Hancock
21. The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien

There are many books on the list I would have happily seen voted number one, but I think the most deserving book won. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Little Women are all firm favourites of mine, but they are books I came to love later on in life, whereas Charlotte’s Web was one of the first books I read on my own.

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I loved Charlotte’s Web as a child, and I find it just as enjoyable now as I did twenty years ago. So I am over the moon at it’s number one spot. Books which tell a story from the point of view of animals have always been popular among children, and E. B. White took this classic theme and created something truly wonderful.

I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this. Did your favourite children’s book make in onto the list? Do you think something else is more deserving of the number one spot? Let me know!