Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A perfect picture book

They don't come along very often: the Ahlbergs' Each, Peach, Pear, Plum; Jez Alborough's Where's My Teddy; Margaret Mahy's Jam; Emily Gravett's Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear - each of these is for me a perfect picture book. So what do they have in common?

Not necessarily having the same illustrator as writer, as the list shows. Or being for one age group or audience. It is the combination of words and pictures which gives total satisfaction.

I have long been an admirer of Penny Dale, since I first saw Once there were Giants (Walker Books). (Actually that book could make the above list too). But with Dinosaur Dig, she has excelled herself.

Let me count the ways: Dinosaurs - tick; Diggers - tick; counting - tick; proper story - tick. And here's the bonus point: endpapers where the front one gives all the dinosaurs their proper names  and the back one ALL THE DIGGERS!

Elementary, you might say. Yeah? Then why hasn't anyone else done it? The combination of all these elements makes something more than the sum of its parts. I shall, with great reluctance, part with it to my nephew this weekend, who is about to be four. And I know he's going to love it as much as I do.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Bracelet of Bones

Quercus has just won the Bookseller Publisher of the Year Award. That might have something to do with the huge success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. But I'd like to think their quiet crescendo of excellent children's books might have contributed to their success.

Grgeory Hughes' d├ębut novel Unhooking the Moon won the Booktrust Teenage Book Award last year and is on the shortlist for the Branford Boase Award, where it shares the honour with editor Roisin Heycock.

More and more these days when you hear of a good YA novel, it seems as if it will have come from a small independent press, often Quercus. And now the treat of a new novel from Kevin Crossley-Holland, first in a series of Viking adventures.

My first glance at the cover of Bracelet of Bones, showed me a girl in a modern raincoat and I couldn't quite get that out of my head. Difficult to know what a Viking teenage girl might have looked like but not quite this. Closer inspection showed my mistake but the damage was done.

No matter for the writing soon corrects any misunderstanding. Solveig is being shown a battlefield by her father, Halfdan. As it turns out, it is his farewell gesture because he is leaving to join Harald Hardrada in Constantinople but he doesn't tell his daughter.

From the moment she discovers his departure Solveig determines not to stay with her stepmother but to wait for spring and follow Halfdan on this enormous journey. All she has to offer are her skills as a carver. There's a handy map tracing her passage from Trondheim in Norway across seas and down rivers to what the Vikings call Miklagard.

It was here a few years ago that Kevin Crossley-Holland found carved into the stone of Hagia Sophia, in Viking runes, the name, Halfdan, and that is how the story began. Solveig's journey is made mostly by ship and the skipper of that ship is the trader Red Ottar. We gradually get to know the other people on board - Torsten the helmsman, Vigot, the handsome but cruel mercenary, Edith, Ottar's English Slave and the terrifying cook, Bergdis.

A lot of "difficult" names for the 11+ reader the book is intended for but there is a useful cast-list at the beginning along with the map. The reader sets out on the journey of the book rather like the passengers on the ship but with these navigational aids you have a literary chart and astrolabe to orient yourself with.

It's a book that grows gradually on you and you realise that you have come to care about the characters. Solveig's single-minded determination to find her father is respected by many but there are others willing to take advantage of the ignorance of this fourteen-year-old adrift in the world. The hardships of such a journey are not played down and nor is the conflict between the old gods and the new Christianity that some, like Edith, practise.

There is a strong awareness of moral ambiguity; people are not easily classifiable and even a mostly bad man is capable of a good act. Kevin Crossley-Holland is very good at showing you the complexity of human nature and there is nothing like the closed community of life aboard ship to bring this out.

A book for a thoughtful early teen. Like Solveig in fact.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The tale of a talisman

In each of my Stravaganza novels (five so far) the teenager from our world who travels in time and space to 16th century Talia does so by means of a talisman. So far there has been a marbled notebook, the model of a flying horse, a blue glass bottle with a silver stopper, a leather-bound spell book and a red velvet bag of silver mosaic tesserae.

The Stravagante in City of Swords is Laura, a self-harmer. I knew from the beginning that her talisman would be a paper-knife in the shape of a small sword with a cross-piece; I had it vividly in my mind's eye and all I had to do was find it.

For each of these books I have tried to find a representation of the talisman to show them on school visits and photograph them for PowerPoints etc. They're not all perfect but close enough to what I imagined. So I thought it would be easy to find what I was looking for this time in Italy. But no luck. After searching the shops and the markets, I came home in April talismanless.

But at Easter, which was close to my birthday this year, my sister, after giving me lots of lovely presents remarked casually that she had something else for me. "I think you said you were looking for a paper-knife like a sword?"

And there it was! The one I had held in my mind all that time - not an invention but a memory. I used to holiday with my parents in Spain when I was a young teenager and apparently they had bought two such paper-knives. They have been dead many years now and my sister had kept both of the little weapons. "You can have this one if you want it," she said, holding out my perfect talisman for City of Swords.

So thanks, Mum, Dad and Big Sis; now Laura can get where she needs to go.