Happy Roald Dahl Day!

The last two weeks have been crazy – many a lost purse, blocked drain and sick cat to keep me busy, so I do hope you’ll forgive my radio silence.

Couple of pieces of good news for you:

Firstly, I have recently received a beautiful copy a super-exciting new children’s book, The Grotlyn, by Benji Davis, the much-loved author of The Storm Whale – I’ve read it, and it’s fantastic, so keep your eyes peeled for a review in the next couple of days, and maybe consider buying a copy in the meantime.

Secondly, but most importantly, it’s Roald Dahl Day!

I hope you have all managed to take a little time out to appreciate, or celebrate in some way, this wonderful children’s author. As for myself, I plan to watch the film adaptation of The Witches the second I get home tonight – the book has always held a special place in my heart – partly, but not just, due to the present of mice.

I love mice, after all, mice, I am fairly certain, all like each other. People don’t.

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In the meantime, to keep myself ticking over, and for the personal enjoyment for each and every one of you reading this, here is a little excerpt from the book. It’s quite possibly the loveliest thing you will read all day, and sure to breed all the good thoughts – remember, if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely 🙂

“How long does a mouse live?”

“Ah,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that.”

There was a silence. She sat there smoking away and gazing at the fire.

“Well,” I said. “How long do we live, us mice?”

“I have been reading about mice,” she said. “I have been trying to find out everything I can about them.”

“Go on then, Grandmamma. Why don’t you tell me?”

“If you really want to know,” she said, “I’m afraid a mouse doesn’t live for a very long time.”

“How long?” I asked.

“Well, an ordinary mouse only lives for about three years,” she said. “But you are not an ordinary mouse. You are a mouse-person, and that is a very different matter.”

“How different?” I asked. “How long does a mouse-person live, Grandmamma?”

“Longer,” she said. “Much longer.”

“A mouse-person will almost certainly live for three times as long as an ordinary mouse,” my grandmother said. “About nine years.”

“Good!” I cried. “That’s great! It’s the best news I’ve ever had!”

“Why do you say that?” she asked, surprised.

“Because I would never want to live longer than you,” I said. “I couldn’t stand being looked after by anybody else.”

There was a short silence. She had a way of fondling me behind the ears with the tip of one finger. It felt lovely.

“How old are you, Grandmamma?” I asked.

“I’m eighty-six,” she said.

“Will you live another eight or nine years?”

“I might,” she said. “With a bit of luck.”

“You’ve got to,” I said. “Because by then I’ll be a very old mouse and you’ll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we’ll both die together.”

“That would be perfect,” she said.”

 

‘Copycat Bear’ by Ellie Sandall

I was drawn to this book by the illustration on the front cover; there was something vaguely nostalgic about the big, scratchy blue bear that seemed to pull on a distant childhood memory and invite me back inside. Who am I to try and resist?

This book is short and sweet, so I will try and keep my review so.

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Mango is little bird with a big attitude, and an even bigger best friend – Blue the bear. The two make an amusing pair, one big, trundling and blue, the other small, swift and orange, but Blue doesn’t seem to care. No matter what Mango does, he always tries to copy her. Whether it’s jumping from branch to branch in the tropical trees or attempting to sing a jungle ditty – he even pretends that he can fly!

Mango cannot stand it!

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When it all gets too much, Mango flies off in a huff – knowing at least Blue can’t follow. But it doesn’t take long before she starts to feel lonely… Where is her copycat bear?

‘Copycat Bear’ is a story of that celebrates friendship, while teaching an important lesson about tolerance and understanding. It reminded me slightly of Rainbow Fish’ – a firm childhood favourite of mine – both in the colours and imagery used, and it its attempt to reflect the importance of kindness and empathy.

The effect is quite something; at times I felt more than a little sorry for Blue.

Thank goodness for happy endings.

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Like all good picture books, ‘Copycat Bear’ is there for children to enjoy, with amusing anecdotes – like a bear attempting to fly – paired with beautifully captivating images, but also alludes to some important and valuable life lessons.

With this in mind there are two main messages running through the book that even young children can learn from. Firstly, that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and though copycats can seem annoying, they might just be the ones who love and respect us the most. But also, and perhaps most importantly, that being different is ok.

‘Under the Silvery Moon’ by Colleen McKeown

The perfect bedtime companion, this beautiful children’s book is soft, sweet, and magical.

So often it’s the words or images alone that make a children’s book, with the other standing in the side-lines paying an occasional well-placed compliment. This little book strikes the perfect balance between the two, with beautiful flowing words perfectly captured by magical, moon-dappled imagery.

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“Around us swirls a summer song; it’s whispered through the trees.
The evening wind is blowing through the softly rustling leaves.”

The sun has set, and bedtime has long past, but one little kitten is struggling to sleep. Snuggled up in the hay lofts of a cosy wooden barn, the scene is perfect for slumber, but outside, animals are stirring, and the night-time noises fill the little ginger tom with fear.

Under the Silvery Moon is the softly sung lullaby of Mother Cat, as she guides her little one on a journey through the sounds of the night, stopping to visit each nocturnal creature along the way.

We pass the shadow-like figure of a fox, singing his night-time song, a happy trundling badger, barking with delight, a host of croaking frogs, bathing by the light of the moon, and snuffling, scurrying hedgehogs, out for a midnight snack.

Elsewhere, a mother duck snuggles with her ducklings, and other animals, tired from a busy day, get some well-earned rest – just as little kittens should.

Mother Cat’s soothing lullaby shows the night is full of noises, but none we need to fear.

Under the Silvery Moon is a calming bedtime read, perfect for settling any little one to sleep, the soft rhyming text and beautiful, dream-like illustrations paving the way for a sweet slumber filled with nocturnal adventures.

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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