Thursday, 31 October 2013

My very own little witch

Artwork by Rhiannon Lassiter and Dom Camus
Once upon a time I had a little girl who loved stories. (And then I had two more but this post is not about them, even though daughter number two was due on Hallowe'en).

And we had a dressing up box - a wooden one - that now resides in the first daughter's grown up living room. For one of the many things they had in common with their mother was a love of dressing up and pretending to be someone else. Once they went as rabbits to a summer party in black leotards with cotton wool ball scuts and carrots hanging round their necks on strings. (There might have been some attempt at ears too).

Another time we were all invited to a Walker books Hallowe'en party and everyone dressed up. I seem to recall my long-suffering husband going as Count Dracula in a black velvet cloak and plastic fangs. Rhiannon Lassiter - for it is she - went as a witch and won a prize.

Clearly this was a formative experience.

It's lovely for a writer to have another writer in the family; it makes for quite different conversations. About characters and plots and incidents. And we get to read each other's books before they are published, which is a big bonus.

So I can tell you that Rhiannon's Little Witches: Bewitched is a brilliant book for younger children. You may associate her with YA novels like Hex, Bad Blood and Ghost of a Chance, but she has  written for younger children already, with Superzeroes and Superzeroes on Planet X, illustrated by Tony Ross.

One of the many qualifications Rhiannon has for performing magic, as well as her name, is the possession of an all black cat. Here they both are, above. So it will be no surprise that the Little Witches of her first e-book also acquire a familiar of this traditional form. Only in his case he is sometimes a boy.

But I am getting ahead of myself. There are five stories in Little Witches: Bewitched, with the promise of more to come. The first story, Little Witches and the Trick-or-Treat Trick, tells how Verity and Dulcie both become genuine witches after a trick-or-treating outing, a dodgy shopkeeper in Camden and some delicious emerald green sweets. It's Hallowe'en - the one night when children can accept sweets from strangers.

Verity and Dulcie meet, with their sisters and au pair respectively, on the same doorstep; both are dressed as witches and they become instant friends.  In the second story, Little Witches and the Wandering Shop, when the spells of the old woman with the green sweets have become rather inconvenient in the way they do in E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, the girls try to find again the shop where it all went wrong, only to find it is no longer there.

Their further adventures have them capturing a ghost in Dulcie's grandfather's very grand stately home, acquiring the cat that is sometimes a boy and travelling back in time to meet a very famous playwright and a surprising third witch.

Pumpkin courtesy of Sara Wallcraft

It's a charming read , full of vivid characters, like Dulcie's Eastern European au pair, the ghost of Audley - a sixteenth century boy murdered by a family member - and Tom, the cat-boy, whose hobbies are stealing things and fish. (The description of his corrugated iron shack and its contents reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones).

The book is available for kindle at the normal price of £5 but, just for Hallowe'en  you can snap it up at the bargain price of just £1.53.That's 70% off the usual price.

And is it nepotism to write about it here and tell you how brlliant it is? Of course. But I really had no choice. You see my daughter put me under a powerful spell.

Rhiannon's website

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

20 favourite YA titles

And here are are my "best" novels for teenagers, again randomly ordered.

 • Robin McKinley Spindle's End

The re-telling of traditional fairy tales in a form attractive to today's teens is quite common now but  this is the one I like best. Quirky, sexy and mysterious.

• Gillian Philip Firebrand

This is the first in the Rebel Angels quartet, three-quarters of the way through as I write. This introduced us to Seth McGregor, definitely not anyone's definition of a fairy. He is one of the Sidhe, for all that and a wonderful creation.

• Linda Aronson Kelp

This funny novel by Linda Aronson, an English author based in Australia , has the irresistible sub-title "A story of love, seaweed and Rupert Murdoch."

• Joan Bauer Squashed

Another funny book - and I find few funny books actually humorous - about an usual teenage girl who grows squashes.

• Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle

I don't know if this was actually written for teens but it is a perfect book to give to a girl of thirteen. I was about a year older when I first read it and suffering from the devoted attentions of a male, which I couldn't reciprocate, so identified with Cassandra. And what self-respecting teenage girl doesn't want to live in a castle?

• Judith Kerr Out of the Hitler Time

This is a bind-up of the trilogy that begins with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Actually it os the second novel - originally called The Other Way Around - which is my favourite.

• John Green Looking for Alaska

I "discovered" John Green at the same time as I found Neil Shusterman, as I mentioned in my post about junior novels. I like this one and Paper Towns better than the recent and notorious The Fault in our Stars. What I like best is the voice he captures so well in each novel.

• Malorie Blackman Noughts and Crosses

A brilliant USP - that it is Black people who have the upper hand in society - brilliantly and bleakly  achieved.

• Diana Wynne Jones Fire and Hemlock

This is probably still my favourite Diana Wynne Jones, though I could have chosen Archer's Goon or A Tale of Time City or Howl's Moving Castle. What a great loss to YA literature.

• Margaret Mahy The Changeover

Another great loss recently was this versatile New Zealander. I could have chosen The Tricksters but Sorenson Carlisle still has my heart so it has to be this one.

• J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Reading for children? Adults? Teenagers? I read them when I was nine and ten respectively, then every year till I was eighteen and realised they were not very well written. Read them to my daughters at family reading. Re-read them after every film and in spite of all the reservations about women, the representation of evil etc. etc. the world-building and action are superb.

• Susan Price The Sterkarm Handshake

When this was recommended to me by Francesca Simon I thought it was the strangest and ugliest title I had ever heard. But she was right: I loved it! The sequel is The Sterkarm Kiss and I know that Susan price has written the third - I can't wait to read it. An action adventure, with strong moral Prime Directive undertones and a sexy hero in Per Sterkarm.

• Katherine Roberts I am the Great Horse

The story of Alexander the Great told from the point of view of his horse - what a USP! And brilliantly executed. The end had me in tears every time.

• Rosemary Sutcliff Sword at Sunset

This is the historical novel about what the actual Arthur of Britain might have been like. And Guinevere. And her lover, who is not that latecomer Sir Launcelot. I first read it years ago and continue to remember whole scenes and dialogues.

• Geraldine McCaughrean A Pack of Lies

Geraldine is another author whose books made me spoilt for choice. She writes something different every time, which is particularly pleasing. This is one of the early ones and the ending is incredibly daring and head-spinning.

• Jan Mark They do Things Differently There

It is a pity than Jan Mark is not remembered more widely now. Her books were intelligent, varied and always a pleasure to read. This one's title is unfortunate and doesn't convey the glorious content. Two friends live in a small town where nothing ever happens. They re-name it Stalemate (which is what the book should have been called) and invent all sorts of outrageous happenings, characters and industries. Just where does all that fat from liposuction go? I love this novel because it's how I tend to look at the world. 

• Annie Dalton Out of the Ordinary

This was her first book, followed by The Alpha Box and The Night Maze, which I alos might have chosen. Sadly for me, Annie Dalton no longer writes for teens. I loved the voice of all of them.

• Anne Fine The Book of the Banshee

Another versatile writer but I particularly liked this one about a bolshie teenage girl.

• Celia Rees Witch Child

This became an instant classic and was followed by Sorceress, the second half of the story. It was reminiscent to me of Monica Furlong's Wise Child, a much older book, but I think that is coincidence. The book's jacket was one of the first featuring a full face teenage girl but, unlike many later ones, the model did look as if she could have belonged in the period written about. The first of Celia Rees's historical novels.

• Julie Bertagna Exodus

The first of a trilogy about a drowned future, featuring the strong heroine Mara and her involvement with resistance leader Fox.

You will notice lots of omissions on this list as on the others. There are books that people rave about that I dislike - such as The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak - and others that I simply haven't read - like The Hunger Games.

But feel free to add some of your favourites.

20 favourite books for Juniors

Continuing with my list of favourite titles, here is one for those who have graduated on to "chapter books". (They are also good for reading aloud). So, in no particular order:

• Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there

One of the very few children's books I read as an adult, having missed it as a child, and actually loved. Who can resist the White Knight, for example? 

• E. Nesbit Five Children and It

The Psammead (the "It" of the title) is one of literature's great creations. I desperately wanted to write a sequel to this called Five Grandchildren and It but Helen Cresswell got there first - with the sequel, I mean; she didn't use that idea.

• Philippa Pearce Tom's Midnight Garden

This is one of those perfect books that show the rest of us how it's done. The clock striking thirteen, the garden that comes and goes, the adventures with Hattie and the eventual discovery of her identity - just beautiful!

• Catherine Storr Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf

We had a tape of these stories, read by Derek Edwards, which was a huge favourite with the children on car journeys.The wolf like poetry to be "useful", e.g.

Monday's child is fairly tough,
Tuesday's child is tender enough,
Wednesday's child is good to fry,
Thursday's child is best in pie.
Friday's child makes good meat roll,
Saturday's child is casserole,
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day,
Is delicious when eaten any way.

• Alan Garner Elidor

Unlike most writers I am not a huge Alan Garner fan but I think Elidor is his best novel and a wonderful introduction to the Grail legends.

• Louis Sachar Holes

Another perfect book. Many contemporary writers for children think that a plot is a series of unrelated events, like beads on a necklace. But in this book, Sachar produces a far more elegant structure, with present and past woven together in the most satisfying way.

• Frank Cottrell Boyce Cosmic

This is almost as perfect! I haven't read Millions but this book and his adult TV play about Auschwitz have convinced me that Cottrell Boyce is a most versatile genius.

• Norton Juster The Phantom Tollbooth

This has recently been re-issued and well deserves to be read by a new generation. Full of excellent verbal jokes and exuberant invention.

• Ted Hughes The Iron Man

This book became a classic the minute it was published. Hughes found just the right way to create a story that felt as if it had always existed.

• Rudyard Kipling Just-so Stories

These are indestructible. We loved them ourselves, read them to our daughters, who loved them too and gave now given them to our young nephews. My favourite is The Beginning of the Armadilloes, with the young painted jaguar whose pet name with his mother was Doffles, but all are full of gems. Now that I am married to a half "Parsee-man" I can fully appreciate the line in How the Rhinoceros got his Skin: "Them that takes cakes what the Parsee-man bakes makes dreadful mistakes."

• Dodie Smith 101 Dalmatians

Most people will know this from films - the Disney cartoon or the very convincing live action movie, with Glenn Close as Cruella de Ville. What a brilliant USP! The kind of thing we all long to come up with.

• Mary Norton The Borrowers

As was this. The very names of the Borrowers family - Homily, Pod, Arietty - are borrowed or half-understood, like the bits and pieces they take from the human world to furnish their domestic lives.

• Robert O'Brien Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh

Does anyone read this now? And yet it was such an important book when I first started as a critic of children's literature in the 1970s. Like Russell Hoban's The Mouse and his Child, an unusual and enduring junior novel.

• Gene Kemp The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler

This one isn't recent either but the shock of discovery about the central character's identity at the very end stays with me.

• Patrick Ness A Monster Calls

A very recent book and a complete masterpiece, which won both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals in the same year. It was Patrick Ness's re-imagination of an idea and notes left by Siobhan Dowd when she was dying and magnificently realised.

• Neil Shusterman Antsy Does Time

Shusterman is an American writer I discovered on a trip to the International Reading Association Congress in Atlanta, where he was present with another great discovery, John Green. (The rest of the world is catching up with John Green now but really, try Neil Shusterman).  This book and The Schwa was Here are junior titles but he is equally good at YA fiction.

• J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit

I didn't read this till after I knew The Lord of the Rings trilogy really well. Structurally it leaves a lot to be desired and the Peter Jackson films aren't helping with that. But the central ideas are great and still appeal.

• Jeff Brown Flat Stanley

The child who has a strange body change - as in The Shrinking of Treehorn or Bill's New Frock - are always winners and this one about a boy who loses dimension and depth is no exception.

• Eva Ibbotson A Dog and his Boy

The last book from a great writer, it sums up everything about a child's relationship with with beloved animals, while remaining skilfully unsentimental.

• Terry Pratchett Wee Free Men

The first of Pratchett's books about the Nac Mac Feegle, impossibly tiny but fierce blue men, who owe a lot to the Picts. Their favourite swear words are "Crivens!" and "Big Jobs!" And a great introduction to the Discworld.

So - those are my twenty. What are yours?