How Winston Delivered Christmas – Alex T. Smith

Even though it is the time of year that we have to work the hardest I really do enjoy Christmas in the bookshop. There is always a buzz to the shop and there are lots (and lots) of exciting new books – it doesn’t really matter who you are or who you’re buying a gift for, the autumn publisher schedule has something for you.  We also start to get visits from teachers selecting books for a book advent calendar – each staff member chooses enough titles to read a new one to their class each school day in December. How much do I wish this had been a thing when I was in primary school? I know some parents who do this for their own children – with a mixture of new books, items picked up in charity shops and lesser read titles from their existing bookshelves – but I think I may have an alternative for them: a whole advent book calendar in one volume…

61VRR0IJaVL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_How Winston Delivered Christmas tells the story of how Winston, a very small mouse, finds a letter to Father Christmas which has, somehow, escaped from the letterbox. He realises it is Christmas Eve and, unless he finds a way to get the letter to the big man, there will be a child with no presents to open the next day – even though he is just a small, cold and hungry mouse he knows he has to deliver the letter. Over twenty-four and a half chapters (one for each day in December and only a half chapter for Christmas Day itself because, well, there is a lot else to do) Winston travels through snow and very large cars to save the day. As well as the story there are lots of ideas for crafts and other activities (I fancy making gingerbread mice myself…) which could come in very useful for all those little ones who just get more and more excited as the big day approaches. It also reminds children and parents that Christmas is a time to think of others – and that you can have adventures even if you are small and scared.

This is a lovely book which will, hopefully, keep small children occupied in the run up to Christmas with a heartwarming story and  interesting activities. Full of adventure, mince pies, little acts of kindness and hand-crafted gift ideas it could easily become a tradition that whole families look forward to every year.

Jane

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Pages & Co – Anna James

I’m a total sucker for books about books and I seem to have read a fair few of them. Books set in bookshops and book-pulping facilities; romances and mystical thrillers and biographies. Some of my favourites, of course, are Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series where our heroine’s job is to police the world of literature by jumping from her real(ish) life into that of fiction. What these titles all have in common, aside from their bookish nature, is that they are books for adults. Us grown-ups see delving into the world of reading as an escape – children, on the other hand, see that world as being as accessible as any other magical land. Which means that, so far, I hadn’t found* any great children’s stories set in bookshops – until I read Anna James’ Pages & Co…

32946432Tilly lives with her grandparents over the bookshop they own in North London. Her father, she has always been told, died before she was born and her mother disappeared in extremely mysterious circumstances when she was only months old. Although this makes her sad sometimes she loves her grandparents (who seem to be the perfect blend of reassuringly stable, slightly eccentric and very loving), and a source of cake and hot chocolate in the form of Jack, who runs the bookshop cafe. She is having some issues at school, her closest friend from primary school is now hanging out with ‘cooler’ girls, but it is half term and she has the best homework ever – she must read a book she has never read before. (Why was my homework never that much fun?) But who are the strange girls she meets in the shop, red-headed Anne (with an ‘e’) and Alice in the blue dress, and why can’t her new friend Oskar see them? This is the point where Tilly discovers the world of Bookwanderers, people who can jump (like Thursday Next) into stories. And although this ability seems, at first, to be a source of endless fun she soon discovers that this is a world with a lot of rules and even more dangers. Even more importantly she, and Oskar, realise that it could also hold the secret to what happened to her parents.

I loved this book – I was just such a bookish child, although I was lucky enough to be fully aware of the location of all my close family members – and I can see it being a very popular read with children of 9 to 10 and upwards. And, although the stories Tilly jumps to are classics (Anne of Green Gables, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a Little Princess), the children are living in a modern world which young readers will recognise. Maybe most importantly it is the first book in a series so Tilly and Oskar have more adventures to share with us in the future.

Jane

* Which doesn’t mean they don’t exist – I just haven’t found them yet…

Riddle Of The Runes – Janina Ramirez

Riddle Of The RunesI first saw Dr Janina Ramirez on TV a few years ago presenting a documentary called Treasures Of The Anglo-Saxons, telling the bigger pictures behind Beowulf, the Gundestrup Cauldron, the Sutton Hoo treasures and many other works of art in a new and engaging way. Since then she’s become a successful author of several nonfiction historical books and presenter of TV programmes ranging from the Hundred Years War and Julian of Norwich, to the Vikings. In addition she runs an active twitter account and a series of Art Detective podcasts. And in between all this she somehow manages to be a course director for the History of Art at Oxford University! It’s fair to say the woman seems tireless, and it’s also fair to say her striking goth look means I have a bit of a crush on her (although hopefully not one that will result in restraining orders).

Riddle Of The Runes is Janina’s first foray into children’s fiction, and it’s wonderful. Set in Viking era Norway around the time of the Lindisfarne raids, this is the start of a series centred on a young heroine Alva Gutharson and her family. Alva is a great character – in this book about 12 years old, intelligent, reckless, brave and foolhardy in equal measures. Alva’s passion is finding out the truth and investigating mysteries, and around her is a cast of characters that alternatively help and frustrate her, her loyal mother Brianna,  the wise, calming influence of Uncle Magnus (my favourite) and her trusty pet wolf, Fenrir.

When a monk from Lindisfarne appears suddenly in her home of Kilsgard babbling of a casket covered in mysterious runes, and a tale of his warrior companion kidnapped in the mountains, the peace of the village is shattered and Alva is filled with purpose – the runes and the casket are a series of clues to a promised treasure and Alva must follow them, keeping ahead of the adults of the village who spend more time debating in the longhouse then getting out there and getting on with it…!

Riddle Of The Runes is a lovely tale of mystery, family, warmth and companionship for children (including grown up children), rooted deeply in Janina’s knowledge and love of this period of history. The whole Viking world of Kilsgard is brought vividly to life, David Wyatt’s atmospheric illustrations complement the story beautifully and as one who spend several happy weekends at Danelaw Viking Village in York drinking mead in the longhouse, tending fires and spit-roasting pigs I felt at times I was back there! I look forward to where Alva goes next.

Rob Glover

Riddle of the Runes – a Viking Mystery by Janina Ramirez with illustrations by David Wyatt
Oxford 241pp

The House With Chicken Legs – Sophie Anderson

Books of the Month, as mentioned in my last post, are not just for adult books. It would be easy to say that it is harder to focus with children’s titles – as they have to cover such a wide range of ages, interests and genres – but I don’t think this is any different from books for older readers. In fact the children’s BOTM (if you’ll pardon me using an acronym) should appeal to an even wider audience since these titles can also be read by the grown-ups. More specifically: me. Even if I still don’t always feel like a grown-up and yearn to define myself as ‘young at heart’.

33832945Marinka, the heroine of The House With Chicken Legs, is 12 years old but doesn’t feel young. She lives with her grandmother and isn’t allowed to have any friends other than her jackdaw, Jack, and their house which, rather unusually, not only has the legs of a rather large chicken but uses them to travel the world so that Marinka’s grandmother can fulfil her role as a Yaga: one whose role is to guide people from the world of the living to that of the dead. She loves her grandmother, and Jack and the house do their best, but she longs for friendship, stability and a normal life. However, when she does defy her upbringing by making friends first with a boy called Benjamin and then a young girl named Nina (who should have passed through the Gate into the world of the dead) things start to go terribly wrong. Her grandmother leaves her, the house – who has nurtured her as much as any person she ever knew – begins to fall apart and she doesn’t know how to make things right…

What I really loved about this book was the way that I can see a young person reading it just because it is a great story with characters you care about but as an adult you can see all the lessons which a young person could be learning without even noticing. Even as a (probable) grown-up I was caught up in Marinka’s problems and was kept turning the pages as I tried to work out how she could solve them. It was only when I reflected after I had finished that I could see the lessons which Marinka learned and which I suspect children may take from the book. Her grandmother tells her, as she helps people of all ages through to the world of death, that the length of a life is less important than its sweetness.  We’d all like to keep those we love with us forever but we can’t – so we need to learn to make the most of the life we do get to share with them. Life is unfair (Marinka is such a realistic pre-teen) but, once you accept that and start to work towards making positive changes things really can get better. Along with Marinka we learn that it is important to learn to love and embrace the things that make you different. The things that make you, well, you. It is then that you realise that others can, and do, love you too.

Jane

Stories of Mary and Jane (or how to become a Queen in two difficult lessons)

I have a sister called Mary. When we were children we would come home from school and go to our granddad’s until Mum finished work. Quite often we would drop into a shop or two on the way – the cake shop if we’d managed to talk Mum out of some pocket-money (I think our record was to negotiate about two months payment in advance) but almost always the pet shop. We were fascinated by all the animals, obviously, but particularly the fish. There were cold water fish, like plain old goldfish, but also plenty of more exotic specimens – we looked at the guppies, the Siamese Fighting fish and the catfish – but mostly we liked to point out the dead ones to the pet shop man. The only thing we didn’t like about the pet shop was the fact that the owner could never get our names right. I have always been taller than Mary (she is truly my ‘little’ sister), she was blond where I had dark hair, she has the Skudder nose and I, well, don’t, but he always got confused and called us both Mary-Jane. As a child this was very confusing – as an adult I get it – but even now I love anything with both names in. Could this have been the start of my love of the history of Tudor women? In the last week or so I managed to read books about queens called both Mary and Jane…

Lady Mary – Lucy Worsley

9781408869444The Mary in question here is Mary Tudor but not as a queen but as a Princess. This book is written for younger readers so Mary’s age reflects this – at the beginning she is nine years old and knew herself to be beloved by both her parents. We then see the efforts of Henry VIII to end his marriage to Mary’s mother, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the religious changes and deadly politics of the period from the point of view of a young girl. This is shown well – Mary is frequently afraid and feels abandoned by both her parents at some point, she has an understanding of the politics of power (she has been taught by the example of both Henry and Katherine) but not of the more adult passions. I did sometimes feel that she was shown as being younger than her age – she is, after all, over 20 when Anne Boleyn dies – but her whole girlhood is extremely sheltered. It is also increasing harsh as her father and step-mother gradually take away all those privileges she enjoyed as a Princess. Even, as the title of the book suggests, the name of Princess.

The book is a way to tell younger readers about the life of a famous woman from history. I’m not entirely sure what age group I would aim this at – there is no graphic content which would make it totally unsuitable for a child of nine who had an interest in the subject (I’m so thinking of me at that age…) but the emotional toll on Mary is not negligible. Like many books which span the 9-12 to teen ranges it is more about the emotional maturity of a child rather than their reading ability – and, of course, because Lucy Worsley is a historian the facts are sound (and the speculation, because there are always huge gaps in the historical record, is justified in the afterword). Of course, if you are reading it as an adult who can’t get enough well-written historical fiction then the latter stages of the book – looking at Mary’s relationship with her second step-mother, Jane Seymour – lead you inexorably on to the next book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series…

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen – Alison Weir

9781472227676I’ve been loving this series about the overlapping lives of the women who were Henry VIII’s queens. It is the overlaps which have been most fascinating – you see Katherine’s view of Anne Boleyn and vice versa – because you can then develop a more rounded impression of their personalities. Katherine was so much more fierce than I can recall her appearing in other histories, even Anne’s view of her is as a formidable enemy, and Anne so much more vulnerable – these books have made these women so much more real for me. I was hopeful, therefore, that Weir would be able to convince me that Jane Seymour was far more interesting than I had previously believed. To be honest, I just thought she was a bit wet…

Jane Seymour does become a much more interesting character than I had previously found her to be. In many ways she is fighting against a lot – Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of royalty herself, a strong figure, and Anne Boleyn is almost a pantomime villain, even the later queens have more of a hook to hang their lives on – and this has made her appear a little pale. Interestingly Weir doesn’t try to deny this paleness – it is the view of her that most of the court has – but does give us a glimpse of the woman which has a little more colour. She portrays a girl with firm religious beliefs, reinforced during her time as a maid-of-honour to Katherine of Aragon, and a strong sense of duty to her family. It is this family, and her ambitious brothers in particular, who encourage her not to reject the King’s advances. She also shows her to be a passionate woman who is eager to marry and have a family and who genuinely loves Henry. She also works hard to promote the interests of Mary Tudor and, in her heart, always thinks of Katherine as the true queen (which doesn’t make her popular when she is part of Anne Boleyn’s court…). These are, I think, factors which come from first-hand reports of her conduct – the things which Weir adds are additional, failed, pregnancies other than the one which led to the birth of the long-awaited son, including one which suggested she didn’t even wait for her betrothal before giving in to the King and, towards the end of the book, the fact that she felt haunted by guilt at the fate of Queen Anne. This was the least successful part for me – it appeared so late in the book that it felt a little forced – but wasn’t totally off-putting. I guess, like me, Weir thought that ‘the slightly wet Queen’ was a poor subtitle to use in this otherwise excellent series.

Jane

Bookworm – Lucy Mangan

I love working in my current bookshop (almost all of the time, although our heating has broken down and temperatures outside haven’t been much above freezing for quite a few days so it has been a challenge recently) but I do sometimes look back fondly on the years I worked in a campus bookstore. I enjoyed the interactions with students and academics, the challenges of dealing with the pressures of the University year and learning how to spell pharmacokinetics or ophthalmology: all those Saturdays off were just a lovely side-effect. This was, largely, before I started running with any regularity so those Saturdays were spent having a lie-in, following the Grand Prix season and reading all my favourite bits of the Saturday Guardian. Blind Date; the letters page to see what people were saying about the previous week’s Blind Date; Hadley Freeman on fashion (even though I don’t care about clothes in the slightest…); the weekend quiz; Let’s Move To…that’s a whole day gone there. But the bit I never liked to miss was Lucy Mangan’s column. I loved hearing about her relationship with Toryboy (now her husband) and about her parents. Mangan always sounded like my kind of person – fonder of reading than the high life and with a family who should be embarrassing but who she wouldn’t swap for the world – so this book (about how her childhood reading shaped the woman she is now) sounded like something I really had to read. I’ve not been reading the weekend papers much for quite a while now – I only hoped that Lucy wouldn’t let me down…

9780224098854I shouldn’t have worried. With her usual blend of humour and intelligence Mangan talks us through the books that were important to her during her childhood. From the brightly coloured board format which are her earliest memory of books (and, as for most children in the past 40-odd years, the Very Hungry Caterpillar plays a pivotal role), through picture books, chapter books for newly confident readers and longer stories we meet all her favourites. And the best bit, for me, is that many of them are my favourites too – I have also spent hours lost in Wonderland and Narnia, discovering adventures on the other side of the Tollbooth and the walls of the Secret Garden.  Along the way we also meet the rest of the Mangan family – the Dad of few words, the no-nonsense Mum and the sister with a secret science facility hidden behind the sofa (probably…) – and hear about plans to try to make her own youngster into a reader. She tells stories of her passion for reading which resonated with me (and would probably sound very familiar to my own Mum and siblings) – I used to have to be thrown out of the classroom at playtime and would often be found hiding under a desk with a book – and she makes very many good points about the value of reading to the young. In the stories she discusses children can learn, in a safe way, about growing up, about life and death, about emotions and about the joys and the perils of childhood. As adults we can read these books and remember what it was like to be a child: alternately brilliant and scary.

Jane

 

 

The Squirrels Who Squabbled – Rachel Bright

After my last post I thought I needed cheering up a little. Eye of the North had plenty of amusing moments but also lots of genuine peril and Home was, well, quite bleak at times (but also sometimes beautiful – you should still give it a try): it was time to get in touch with my own inner five-year-old and giggle at a picture book. And now, a day or so later, I’m still smiling as I remember it…

9781408340486The squirrels in question are Spontaneous Cyril* and Plan Ahead Bruce** who have very different approaches to life. Like Aesop’s ant and grasshopper one has partied away the summer months and the other has worked hard to store up supplies and they have both spotted the very last nut of autumn. The race to bag the prize leads them on a merry chase and, finally, to a happy ending. It is a really simple story, obviously, but one which is going to be a favourite one to read out loud. The rhymes are infectious and there is a gentle moral at the end but for me the absolute glory of the book is the illustration style. The squirrels themselves are full of character (but really quite realistic too) but it is the backgrounds which I really loved. They are beautiful, soft, autumnal scenes full of colour and detail which had me itching to get my hands on some soft pastels.

I’m going to enjoy recommending this book to lots of kids, parents, carers and teachers. Especially if they let me read it to them first…

Jane

*To be honest, I was hooked as soon as I saw the words ‘Spontaneous Cyril’…

**Which made it very hard not to read the rest of the book, after meeting Bruce, in an Australian accent…