Thursday, 25 June 2009

A first and big feet

This is the first time ever that the Carnegie Medal has , in 72 years, been awarded posthumously. And it has gone to Siobhan Dowd, for Bog Child, the last book she finished, just a few months before her death from cancer in 2007.

A very shouty David Fickling, who published all Siobhan's novels, said she would have been "so wickedly delighted to have won ... the Big One." It was an emotional moment when the prize was announced and all three of Siobhan's sisters were there to accept it on her behalf, Denise thanking David and the two other people who had helped to launch Siobhan's career - Writer Tony Bradman and her agent Hilary Delamere.

But it was not an emotional decision; the book has been widely praised for its beautiful writing and the accomplished interweaving of the plots of hunger strikes in Northern Island and an ancient corpse of a young girl found by archaeologists. It tells the story of Liam whose older brother is close to death in prison, following Bobby Sands, and the history of the child found in the bog.

Earlier, Catherine Rayner had charmingly accepted the Kate Greenaway Medal for Harris Finds his Feet, a picturebook "about a learning curve" in which a hare grows into his outsize feet. Much was made of Catherine's own size eights, which were discreetly hidden behind the podium.

Behind me were sitting an earlier short-listed author Linda Newbery and 1976 winner K M Peyton, in front of me Siobhan Dowd's agent and beside me one of the judges. It was a special place to be on a special day.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Parental Guidance

I had to read this, didn't I? And I found it absolutely compelling, in spite of its flaws. (Must write a post one day about how page-turning does not necessarily = excellent).

I actually think it's much better than the Booker Prize-winning Possession, where the story in the past was so much more interesting than the one in the present, and almost a masterpiece.

It is big in scope, the plot taking us from 1895 to the aftermath of the Great War, and it is well written. I'll do the synopsis quickly because if you read literary reviews at all you must be aware of the underlying story.

It charts the development of four families, two called Wellwood, one called Cain and one called Fludd. (Now you'd have to be VERY secular and ignorant not to see the Biblical overtones in this choice of names). Olive Wellwood, who recalls Edith Nesbit, is Socialist whose children's stories keep the wolf from the door when her husband, Humphrey loses his job as a banker through writing inflammatory articles. They have seven living children, only one born after the beginning of the book, but in time we learn that not all seven share the same two parents.

Olive's sister Violet lives with the breeding pair as an unpaid nurse and nanny and there are many comments about who is the real mother, the one who gives birth or the one who raises the child, which gain an added poignancy as the children's biological parentage is revealed.

Humphrey's brother Basil is a real banker and has two children, the older of whom flirts with Marxism in Germany. Prosper Cain has two children too and is a widowed Major working at what will become the V & A. Three more children for the monstrous genius Benedict Fludd, a potter who sexually abuses his two daughters, with his wife's knowledge and then makes obscene pottery based on their genitals. (He is clearly suggested by Eric Gill, although one reviewer referred to him merely as a "bully").

Are you keeping up? That's fourteen children and adolescents lined up near the beginning of the novel. But they are not all. The two most interesting are not from this Edwardian class of money, privilege and the luxury of having political opinions. Philip Warren, the self-taught artist found hiding in the V&A in the first chapter, and later his sister Elsie both end up in the Fludd household. A German puppetmaster has teenage sons; the young people proliferate like William Morris leaves in the fabric of the novel.

Olive and Humphrey Wellwood are in their way monsters as bad as Benedict Fludd; incredibly selfish about their sexual appetites and need for flattery, they also neglect their children and think they don't need to be told who their parents are. Olive compounds this by leading a sort of vampiric life, sucking the childhood out of, in particular, her favourite eldest son, Tom. Each child has a book written specially for him or her, not for publication.

This is a kind of extension of the labelling that all parents are prone to do to their children: the sensitive one, the clever one, the unconventional one. Olive pins her children's lives to these stories as unemotionally as if she were collecting butterflies and doesn't notice when the stories no longer fit.

But there are other monsters in this book too, namely Herbert Methley, a ghastly naturist novelist who preys on young women and is the cause of two illegitimate pregnancies.

So, a large cast of characters and it is unwieldy, particularly near the beginning. Byatt tells the names of every guest at Midsummer Party given by the Wellwoods - and what names! Pomona Fludd, August Steyning, Griselda Cain, Florian Wellwood. Not content with that, she has to tell us what every single one of them is wearing, in some detail. And this is not the only time.

This is partly what stops it short of being her masterpiece. Either she needs a braver editor or she needs to listen to the editor she has. In this encyclopaedic charting of details, which can be very telling, she lapses into the flabby because of not knowing where to draw the line between what she knows (and has thoroughly researched) and what the reader needs to know.

And we all know what's coming don't we? 1914 looms like a brooding presence over the whole book. But for Tom, a more personal, localised tragedy removes him from that option. His mother dramatises his story without telling him and that violation, piled on top of the physical and sexual abuse that caused him to run away from his private school and become almost a wild boy of the woods, precipitates him towards a different end. What's the good of having enlightened creative parents if they can't save you from torment and then betray you publicly?

In a spectacular display of parental neglect, Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland lost their son Fabian to a tonsilitis operation performed in their kitchen when he was only fifteen. They had forgotten that he shouldn't have food before an anaesthetic and, left alone, he choked on his own vomit. I'm sure A S Byatt knew this story. Her own son was killed in an accident at the age of eleven. These facts resonate throughout The Children's Book.

Towards the end, when we are in the thick of the war and its aftermath, Byatt interleaves a poem written by Julian Cain about the names soldiers give to the trenches and I couldn't read it. I didn't want to read a poem at that point; I needed to know who survived and who didn't. I doubt I was alone in that.

And she has a tendency to introduce charcters and tell us lots about them and then abandon them.

But my God, she can write! No-one else I know has pulled off so well the descriptions of imaginary works of art, particularly those of Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren. For those alone it is worth reading The Children's Book.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Bearded author expelled from Facebook

Famously bearded children's author Philip Ardagh (the best-selling Eddie Dickens books) has until recently been a very visible (well, partly) presence on Facebook, regularly commenting on the status of friends, many of whom are also children's writers and illustrators.

Until he took it into his head to wish someone a happy wedding anniversary and then compounded the felony by wishing someone else a happy birthday. He received two warnings from Facebook about abusive behaviour and has now disappeared from the site.

All his posts have also been removed.

But Philip's friends have not taken this lying down; as well as petitioning Facebook to reinstate this harmless if bumbling giant, many of them have donned similar beards in protest (see the Book Maven, above).

But wait - could this all just be a cunning plan? Philip has a new book out - four in fact - called Grubtown Tales, published by Faber. Surely not even PA would stoop to PR that involved his Facebook friends making fools of themselves in photoshopped beards?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The tantalising gap

The charm of this photo of two laureates embracing justifies its place here, even though it is a bit blurry! The Maven was sitting on a windowsill 31 floors above Tottenham Court Road/Oxford Street (on the inside, naturally) on Tuesday and taking photos from a distance over the heads of a large and enthusiastic audience.

The tension was ratcheted up as more and more lovely people came to tell us what a great job Mike Rosen had done for the last two years (hear, hear) and what an exciting two years we had to come. Viv Bird from Booktrust, Sue Wilkinson from MLA, Toby Bourne of Waterstone's, Lord Chris Smith ("So nice not to be an MP these days!"), Julia Eccleshare, and then Mike Rosen, the outgoing Laureate.

He's started the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the A-Z of Poetry (from Agard to Zephaniah) and the Poetry on YouTube project, which his son Joe has been working on. He made a dramatic difference to a school in Cardiff, the subject of BBC4 documentary and has launched the Just Read initiative for schools (of which more anon). And he has been a powerhouse of energy as a champion of children's books and reading.

Mike said we are at a vital moment in the history of the book, when we need to decide whether they are for everyone or for a self-selecting minority.

Then came Andrew Motion, the outgoing Poet Laureate, who has worked closely with the Children's incumbent in the ten years of the younger laureateship. He described the title as an "honour, a benediction, a commendation and a challenge" and if anyone knows what he's talking about it's him.

Then came at last the big announcement - that the Children's Laureate for 2009-2011 would be
Anthony Browne.

This, although not a surprise, had been a well-kept secret. It was time for another illustrator, since we hadn't had one since Quentin Blake, the first, and Anthony Browne is a hugely popular and judicious choice. He has won the Hans Anderson Medal, so has enormous prestige internationally. More importantly, his work, with its gorillas and chimps and references to art and disturbing background details in which floral wallpaper might turn into pigs if you don't keep an eye on it, is instantly recognisable to and enjoyed by children.

He will be a terrific laureate, concentrating on picturebooks and the "tantalising gap" between words and pictures. He will get us all playing the "Shape Game" that he invented with his brother Michael - there to play it again on stage at Centrepoint. As Anthony said, "Everything comes from somewhere else."

The Maven expects some very good things to come from this appointment.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The malodorous one is 21

To Notting Hill for a twenty-first birthday party. Kaye Umansky's Pongwiffy, the witch with a personal hygiene problem, celebrates her majority this year by being re-issued by Bloomsbury.

The first title is Pongwiffy Back on Track, about the O'Lumpick Games, so very topical. But there are six backlist titles, all re-illustrated by Nick Price in the new look you can see on the witch's birthday cake.

Bloomsbury are bringing out one a month, so you can follow the smelly witch's fortunes like a soap opera.

It was a very happy occasion, with no need at all for air freshener as this very popular author celebrated her latest success. Kaye Umansky is a great champion of short funny books for children and has certainly written many of them herself.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Another Frances LIncoln story

Well, I know they are one of my publishers but this is a good news story. We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures has just won a special award in the category English 4-11 Best Children's Illustrated Book. It was a bold move to choose to illustrate such a set of concepts and Amnesty International were the publishing partners. Many illustrators, such as Jane Ray and Marcia Williams, contributed pictures which are far from grim.

And at a time when Aun Sung Su-Kyi is on trial again and we are not to be shown any further images from Abu Ghraib we might think there's never too early an age to introduce children to the concept of Human Rights.

The Book Maven's been away, sweltering in record-breaking heat in Italy. Then she came back and found it almost as hot here. Not to seem ungrateful, she is glad that it will be a bit cooler, with so many trips to London coming up.

And just to avoid charges of partisanship, she raises a metaphorical glass to Usborne Fiction (who have not published her) in celebration of their first five years. They are marking the anniversary with a competition to find new young writers. Full details are at: