Saturday, 23 January 2021

Review of Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, by Natasha Farrant - by Sue Purkiss

  I noticed the other day that this book, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, has won the children's book category of the Costa award, and so I decided to send for it. The afternoon it arrived, on a cold grey day when the obvious thing to do was to curl up with a good book, I settled down on the settee and got stuck in.

It's 352 pages long, and other than getting up to make a cup of tea, I barely looked up until I'd read it. It's that entertaining.

Set just after the First World War, it's about two orphans, Lotti and Ben. Lotti's parents, wealthy, charming, and very much in love, both with each other and with their little daughter, are killed in a plane crash. Lotti inherits their beautiful house and their money - but her guardian is her ghastly uncle, Hubert Netherbury, who is a cruel bully who wants to enjoy her house and money and, seeing Lotti as an inconvenience, packs her off to an unpleasant boarding school.

The story starts when she is twelve. Having just run away from school, she meets Ben and they become firm friends. Ben's background is far less privileged. Having spent his early years in a horrible orphanage, he is rescued by Nathan, a kindly barge owner. Nathan comes across Ben and his older friend Sam and, moved by their plight, takes them in. However, a few years later the war intervenes. Sam joins up and is injured. Nathan goes to France to see him in hospital, and is killed in a bombing raid: Sam is missing, presumed dead.

By coincidence, the hospital is close to the village where Lotti's beloved grandmother lives. Strangely, she has lost touch with her grandmother; though she has written many letters to her, she has never heard back.

But then various things happen which convince the two of them that they have no choice but to run away - and to where else but that village in France? And in what but Nathan's old barge, the Sparrowhawk? With them are their two dogs, which help to move the action along nicely.

The charm of the book is largely in its characters - not just Lotti and Ben, but their supporting cast of friends and helpers. They are generous, spiky, kind, practical, funny, brave, and Natasha Farrant tells their stories with crispness and panache. It's not all spun sugar: there are instances of real cruelty, there's jeopardy - and there are quite a few deaths.

When you start to write books for children, someone will point out to you quite early on that you need to devise a way to get rid of parents. Otherwise, how can your child heroes have the adventures they need to keep readers turning the pages? Back in the olden days, Enid Blyton did it with a flourish: off the kids would go to boarding school, and in the holidays to Kirrin Island. Convalescence from a serious illness was another goody, as with Will Stanton in Susan Cooper's The Grey King. Or there's always a wardrobe. Natasha Farrant ruthlessly wipes out , not one, but two set of parents here. (Interestingly, I heard Frank Cottrell Boyce on the radio the other day, talking about the Moomins - and he pointed out that in the Moomin books, this doesn't happen: the family is at the centre of the books. Each member is important, and when an adventure is afoot, the parents aren't necessarily left out of it.)

All that aside, this is a wonderfully readable and exciting book: perfect for distracting children - and yes, adults too - from these rather dreary days in which we find ourselves.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Review of 'I Talk Like A River', written by Jordan Scott and illustrated by Sydney Smith, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart


This is an extraordinary and beautiful picture book which does something I've never seen a picture book do before. It takes us into the world of a child with such a bad stutter that he is unable to say anything when put under pressure. But a simple observation by his lovely Dad changes his perception of himself and of his stutter forever.

This heartbreaking yet hopeful book is written by poet Jordan Scott, who tells in an Afterword how, after a 'bad speech day' at school, his own father took him for a walk by the river, and pointed out how the river water flows like the boy's speech. 'When he pointed to the river, he gave image and language to talk about something so private and terrifying. In doing so, he connected my stuttering to the movements of the natural world ...' And the story text gives us that experience.

'See how the water moved? That's how you speak.'
I look at the water bubbling, churning, whirling, and crashing.

And then we get the spread with a double gate-fold, opening out on either side to place the boy in the sparkling river - 


Every school library should have this book. It's a book particularly well suited to junior school age children, but wonderful for older children and adults too.

Sydney Smith has won awards for his illustrations in other picture books. I suspect that this book will win him more awards. It's utterly beautiful. 

Pippa Goodhart   

Thursday, 21 January 2021

A Shelter for Sadness by Anne Booth

In October 2017 I wrote a poem about sadness, drawing on my own experiences of sadness, as a child and as an adult, but inspired by  the incredibly beautiful and wise words of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jewish woman  killed in the Holocaust.

'Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge-from which new sorrows will be born for others-then sorrow will never cease in this world. And if you have given sorrow the space it demands, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich.' (Esther 'Etty' Hillesum (15 Jan 1914 - 30 Nov 1943)

 I heard them first at a talk given at my church, and, four months after my dad had died, they really spoke to me. Some sadnesses can't be fixed, but we have to honour them - we can't deny them or push them away without doing ourselves or others great damage, and this works for peoples and nations who have suffered, and for individuals.  I came home and wrote my response, sent my poem/picture book text to my agent, Anne Clark, she sent it to Templar, to Ruth Symons  and Templar asked David Litchfield if he would like to illustrate it. He said 'yes', but he had lots of work to do, so I was told it wouldn't be published until 2021! It seemed an impossibly long time to wait, but we all knew that David was worth waiting for.

And now it is here, at last, published on the 21st January 2021. And David's illustrations are so wonderful. 

A Shelter for Sadness (Hardback)

I must also acknowledge the wonderful design of the book by Genevieve Webster, and the editor was Alison Ritchie.

I had no idea back in 2017, that on top of all the other sadnesses in the world, there would now be Covid-19 and all the sadness caused by that, and lockdown and stress and unemployment and being apart from loved ones and bereavement and fear and anxiety, but I am glad now about the long wait for our book's publication, and hope that my words, and the beautiful illustrations by David Litchfield can be a help to children and adults, now and in the future. 

And I hope that we can all somehow manage to build shelters for our sadness during this time, and find consolation in small joys, and that we can emerge at the end, and, even with our sadness, be happy again.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

On a Scale of Owls ... by Joan Lennon


If the world really is divided between writers who are larks and writers who are owls, normally I'm a lark.  Lately, though, I'd say my larkishness has become a bit more bewildered-by-being-awake-in-the-day owly - I'm sleeping later, starting work later, blinking in the winter light, such as it is, and fantasizing about naps.  Maybe it's the time of year.  Maybe it's the state of the world.  Is anyone else finding their larks are turning owlish, or their owls are becoming larky?

And which medieval owl are you feeling like today? 

(An old photo, but it reminds me that I'd love to do another Falconry Day sometime!)

(Thanks to Michelle Lovric for putting the Medieval Owl Scale up on Facebook.)

Joan Lennon Instagram

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Tigers and trophies in the African bush – by Joan Haig

One of my pet hates is when tigers in picture books are plonked with zebras or African elephants in a scene vaguely described as ‘jungle’. I know they are stories and therefore it shouldn’t matter – but my annoyance isn’t only to do with factual inaccuracy. It’s more than that. The decision feels like an extension of careless, nineteenth-century attitudes where the ‘exotic’ was constructed and curated for the entertainment of the world’s white elite. Without critical comment, we have extended our blanket ‘othering’ beyond human culture into the zoological realm, ignoring the impact this might have on our toddlers’ developing world views.

The word jungle is gorgeous. It comes from Hindi jangal and first appeared in the English language in the late 1770s in reference to the uncultivated forests at the foot of the Himalaya mountains. But along the way, jungle has become synonymous with 'rainforest' and it's also become a place where some European writers and illustrators stick a whole range of wild animals that don't belong there. Although I grew up close to tropical forest, it was in central Africa and we didn’t use the word jungle at all. Our word for the wilds around us – thorny scrubland, thick miombo woodlands, rainforest – was ‘the bush’. With Dutch roots, the term die bos settled into Afrikaans as a way of referring to land more forested than the veldts (or plains), and at some point it shape-shifted into English.

About ten years ago I interviewed an American taxidermist living out in the bush in Zambia’s Southern Province. It was for academic research on white minority identity, but most of my questions ended up being about how to transform dead animals (or parts of them) into trophies. The interview took place in his workshop, crammed with stuffed antelope busts, elephant-feet stools and zebra hides. A storeroom to the back housed plastic containers marked flammable, clay pastes, and giant plaques onto which heads of the Big Five would be mounted. Most of the finished work was destined for American and European walls. (I recall an archaologist friend once commenting how difficult it would be in the future to trace the origins of things.)

The taxidermist was working on a buffalo head when I arrived, which took up a vast space in the centre of the room. It was for a Californian client who paid in cash; my interviewee was keen to impress for future referrals. After stubbing out his cigarette, he showed me how to match new glass eyes to the buffalo’s dead ones. He paid a premium for quality eyes, he told me, importing them from Germany (“best in the world” at fake eye production). He saw his work very much as an art form. “You must always start with the living animal,” he said. “Imagine it in its natural environment, alive. Its movements, the sheen on it, the colour of its tongue. The whole time you’re working, it can’t be dead in your mind – you have to keep it alive.”

About five years later, at a worktable shared with fellow writers in the Scottish Highlands, I started my first novel for children and my own taxidermy of a sort. Tiger Skin Rug features a tiger in both rug and living form. The story is not about taxidermy so there was no need to include any gory, technical detail, but my morning in the taxidermist’s workshop proved to be instrumental. My fieldnotes – though off-piste for my research at the time – were rich in detail about how to magic a carcass into a beautiful object.

© Marian Brown, from Tiger Skin Rug (Cranachan Publishing, 2020)

There’s ongoing and intense debate on the morality of trophy hunting in central Africa, which I’ll save for another time. I have attendant (and strong) opinions about how hunting wild animals for sport in general should be examined through the same lens we use to critique any other outdated and nasty human habit. Suffice to say, the taxidermist and I flew different flags. I did, however, agree with him on one count.

I’d asked him what the most memorable animals he’d worked on were. A chameleon was one, for the simple impossibility of catching in chemicals its changing colours. Another was a tiger. When I probed him on where he’d worked on a tiger, he pointed down at his feet. “Right here.” It had been before legislation in the late 1980s banned the trade of tiger parts. He lamented, apparently without irony, “The whole time I was working on it, it didn’t make sense, you know. You have to imagine the animal in its habitat. In mangroves, right? Or mountains, or jungle. But here I am working away at this tiger in the middle of the African bush. A tiger in Africa! It was out of place.”


Tiger Skin Rug has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2021 and is a Finalist in The People's Book Prize Winter 2020/21 competition, open to public votes. Please cast yours here. Thank you!

Monday, 18 January 2021

Small shreds of comfort - by Lu Hersey

If you're old enough (which probably most of you are), you'll remember where you were the day the twin towers fell on 11 September 2001. I was working as an advertising copywriter for a small copywriting company, and it was the day of my annual review. We were based in a tiny, open-plan office, so reviews were held in the enormous (and mostly empty) Wetherspoons nearby, over coffee. To be honest, I never really liked the job anyway, but it paid the bills. Copywriting is all about convincing people to buy things they don't need, or that something is good (like new bank charges, or a building development over a green site) when it clearly isn't. 

As my boss droned on about company targets and the improvements 'we' (he meant me) needed to make, I was completely distracted by the vast TV screen behind him, watching in horror as the second plane crashed into the twin towers. I remember nothing about what he said. I was transfixed. In the end, I had to tell him to shut up a minute and turn around to look. Weirdly (in my opinion) he showed no interest, left me sitting there and went back to work. It was several minutes before I realised he'd stopped talking and had gone. Work was more important to him than anything, and I had to admire his focus - even if I thought his priorities were skewed (it tends to happen if you work in advertising for too long). In real time, people were dying in their thousands, but he couldn't bring himself to stop writing the M&S company report (or whatever he was working on) for even a moment. 

To be fair to him, I was probably a nightmare employee - good on the creative side, but crap on the supreme importance of financial services. I stuck it there for another few years before leaving to work in a library - less money, much nicer people, and ALL THE BOOKS! Like going to heaven after a long period in purgatory.

Anyway, when it came to writing this month's blog post, it felt a bit like it did that day. I started writing something and then the news came on - it was the day the Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. I can't remember for the life of me what piece of pertinent folklore (or whatever) I was going to spout at you, as it got taken over by events. Instead, I started marvelling that any of us are able to write anything in a hideous global pandemic where life increasingly looks like some kind of horrific dystopian nightmare. 

If you're currently writing dystopian fiction, you'll be getting more ideas than you need. Or if you write so-called 'issues' stories, this is a time when everyone needs them, as mental health and other problems spiral out of control. But I write about folklore and magic, and I began to wonder if there was any point to my existence. Not a key worker, writing nothing of use to anyone. A few days of deep gloom followed when I watched too much telly and ate the rest of the Christmas chocolate. 

Then I realised. At least half of what I was watching was fantasy. Magic. Superheroes. And looking at the 'most popular in the UK' Netflix chart, seems I'm not alone. And a good 75% of the books I read are also folklore based, magic, or fantasy. 

So maybe there are others out there, children included, who still need that stuff too? People looking for small shreds of comfort at a difficult time. And I've started writing again, because maybe it's important to keep trying.

Everyone needs to escape from time to time. (Even those who write company reports.)

Lu Hersey

Sunday, 17 January 2021

How was it for you? by Tracy Darnton

This time last year I used my January blogpost to talk about my tottering TBR pile and how I wanted to make more time for reading for pleasure. I said I'd report back. 

I ruled out cutting out TV and setting reading targets to fail at. Instead I decided:

"I’m going to split my TBR pile into little piles so it’s not so overwhelming. (Simple but effective)

I’m not going to keep a list of books I read.

I’m not going to stop buying books. I love it.

I’m going to get a bigger bookshelf (or two)."

So far, so good but then...2020 happened.

Turns out global pandemic anxiety is even worse than all the general existential political despair that drained my mental energy in 2019 and that I've watched more TV than I've watched before working my way through Call my Agent (new series about to stream, everyone!), Hjem Til JulBridgerton, His Dark Materials and rewatching The Bridge. But aside from all that, did I read more, in common with the many people who turned to books for solace and distraction? How was my reading year?

During the first lockdown, my household piled up finished books as we read them, and chatted about them and swapped recommendations. Many of these books were on the TBR pile photo in the January blogpost. I did find stacking them up like this motivational to read more so I will try keeping a list this year. 

One of my books, The Truth About Lies, was selected for World Book Night 2020 which meant I had to talk about why reading mattered to me and my favourite books.


This got me reading lots of classics. I chose The Great Gatsby as my favourite novel - and obviously read it again. 

I had a week's holiday in May - in the garden. I sat in my Hay Festival deckchair in the sunshine, 'attended' Hay festival events online, read books and had coffee in the festival café my kids set up. So thumbs up to that as a way to read more. Here's hoping I can go to an actual festival this year...

My family ordered merch for my staycation festival

Another way I've increased my reading is in a book club. With my lovely SCBWI buddies, we started a monthly reading group. It has the added dimension of us all reading both for enjoyment and for a discussion of the craft of the writer. Why did we like the main character (or not)? How did the setting work so well? What would we change as an editor? We alternate between MG and YA and we're about to start reading our fourth book - Bearmouth by Liz Hyder. Can't wait to meet up in a coffee shop one day instead of zoom. 

Lastly, I joined fellow YA writers to form the Edge of the Seat thriller writers' group. This was an excellent excuse to read everyone's latest books and say what we liked about them on Twitter.  

I'd resolved to carry on buying lots of books and I did so, from high street bookshops, though I missed the whole browsing experience. As I'm moving house this week and will have to buy more bookcases, we have been ruthless about the books that are coming with us. But I like our books to have another life after us. We've donated loads to the primary school on our street which is building up its library. Many older reads have gone to our local reading charity which runs groups in care homes, night shelters and by GP-referral - which makes me think about my own reading habits and how I've realised this year that much of the enjoyment of reading for me is in chatting about and sharing thoughts on the books I've read, and getting friends' recommendations. I like talking about books as much as reading them.

So I'm going to continue chatting about books as the key to me finding time for reading. I'm so looking forward to getting back into bookshops, libraries, coffee shops and festivals to do just that in person. 

So how was it for you? How was your reading year?

Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers The Rules and The Truth About Lies