Carnegie Roehampton Readers Review: Blood Family

Carnegie Greenway MedalsThe Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove. 

Review: Blood Family by Anne Fine

By Kay Waddilove

In this book Anne Fine explores a range of sensitive topics, from domestic violence and child neglect to addiction, foster care, social services and, in particular, the impact of family life, in a nature v nurture debate which is the over-arching theme of Blood Family.

Use of the multiple narrative voice allows Fine to offer the reader insights into Eddie’s situation that would not have been possible with the sole use of a first-person child narrator. The device also enables her to convey her ‘message’ without overt didacticism, although her ideological position is clear. In the maze of psychological and sociological scenarios she investigates, she invariably foregrounds the needs of the child, exploring how those needs, particularly the emotional ones, can be compromised, not only by outright abuse, but also by the well-intentioned interventions and unnecessary bureaucracy she describes.

Blood Family by Anne FineUnlike some of Fine’s earlier depictions of problematised family life – in Goggle-Eyes (1989) or Flour Babies (1992) for example – which utilised a comedic approach to make serious points, Blood Family explores the nature of good and evil in a largely non-humorous style more reminiscent of her award-winning The Tulip Touch (1996). Fine takes a balanced approach in her representation of family dynamics; the binary opposition of Bryce Harris and Mr Perkins as paternal figures is rounded out by the flawed but Winnicotian ‘good-enough’ parenting offered by adoptive father Nicholas and foster father Alan, while the sadly inadequate Lucy is counterpointed by the warm and motherly Linda, and the somewhat less devoted, but still caring and responsible Natasha.

I do feel however that this is a ‘book of two halves’, and that the first part leading up to Eddie’s traumatic discovery of his true parentage is far stronger than the second. Once Eddie becomes Edward, the author’s description of his descent into alcoholism, homelessness and violence, while necessary in order to demonstrate the effects of early abuse, becomes more overtly didactic and thus, ironically, less ideologically effective. There is a loss of pace, and the narrative voices lack individuation; certainly the voice of the psychotherapist in Section V is hampered by over-exposition, and Fine’s outstanding gift as a writer who prefers ‘showing’ to ‘telling’ is less evident in the final sections of the book.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting book, which is easy to read due to the short ‘chapters’, varied narrative voices and Fine’s accessible style. Although the age recommendation on the Carnegie website is 14 years plus, I think that Fine is correct to assert in an interview that most children of 11 plus would be aware of the issues involved and able to deal with her analysis of them. And she is careful to balance her account, as noted above, and end on a note of hope. Blood Family was originally conceived as a single title with an earlier thriller, recounting the effects of 19th century child neglect and written as a Gothic novel. The Devil Walks (2011) – worth reading as a companion to this title – is referenced in the title of Eddie’s The Devil Ruled the Roost, and the opening sentence of this ‘book’ (p128) is virtually identical to the actual opening sentence of The Devil Walks (p3). And for a similar (but lighter-touch and very amusing) account of the effects of poor parenting set in both contemporary and historical periods, try Fine’s Step by Wicked Step (1995).

 

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Carnegie Roehampton Readers Review: The Child’s Elephant

Carnegie Greenway MedalsThe Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove. 

Review: The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston

By Lorna Collins

The Child's Elephant by Rachel Campbell-JohnstonThe Child’s Elephant begins with the seemingly charming story of Bat, a young boy living in a traditional African village and whose job it is to care for the family’s herd of cows. He is out with the cows one day, when he stumbles on the sight of an elephant being killed by poachers for its tusks. He later discovers a very young baby elephant that has been orphaned by the poachers. He enlists the help of his friend, Muka in rescuing and caring for the baby elephant, naming her Meya. The two children develop a bond with Meya and on the surface this is a very traditional tale of children befriending and caring for an orphaned wild animal. However, throughout the first part of the book, there are hints of lurking danger, with mention being made of children snatched away from home. We are never told directly where the story is set, but Campbell has stated that she drew on her knowledge of several places in Africa, and particularly Uganda, and Komo’s Lord’s Resistance Army. At the end of the first part of the book, Meya becomes a liability in the village, and Bat and Muka train her to go back into the wild, eventually leaving her with a herd of wild elephants. This would have made quite an enchanting story on its own, appealing as it does to a widespread wish among children for an animal friend.

The second part of the book has a much darker theme. Both Bat and Muka are captured whilst going about their daily tasks, and are taken to be trained as child soldiers. Lobo, who never quite fitted into the life of Bat’s village and now works at recruiting child soldiers, has spoken of Bat’s affinity with elephants, which is why he has been kidnapped. Bat befriends another child soldier, Gulu, who has obviously suffered severe trauma at the hands of his kidnappers, since he repeats the fact that he has done things no one could forgive him for. Although this is a very harsh topic for the subject of a children’s book, I felt it was sensitively dealt with and the extreme cruelty, whilst hinted at, is never openly written about.
The third part of the book completes the whole, bringing the now grown Meya back into the story, and giving it perhaps a happier ending than would be expected in a book written for an older audience.

Carnegie Roehampton Readers Review: Rooftoppers

Carnegie Greenway Medals

The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove. 

Review: Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

By Eleanor Hamblen

Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers begins with a baby floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel. All that follows is equally distinctive as both the protagonist, Sophie, and the story grow into something rather exceptional.

Happily, Sophie is fished out of the water by fellow shipwreck-survivor Charles Maxim who is perhaps a more stereotypical scholar than tightrope-walking Katherine Rundell, herself a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He claims to “understand books far more readily than [he understands] people” but as the story unfolds Charles displays an intuitive understanding of his young ward with “hair the colour of lightening” and “eyes the colour of candlelight”, enabling and encouraging her adventures.

Rooftoppers by Katherine RundellThe first chapters chart Sophie’s unconventional early years in London. There is more than a hint of Pippi Longstocking in her upside-down habits of replacing plates with books and sleeping on top of a wardrobe. Such eccentricities are the cause of much sighing, frowning and note scribbling from Miss Elliot, a representative of the National Childcare Agency. On Sophie’s twelfth birthday, this oppressive organisation threatens to take her away from Charles which prompts their escape to Paris in search of Sophie’s long-lost mother.

Facing more difficulties with the French authorities, Sophie is forced onto the Paris skyline while Charles seeks legal advice. It is here that she encounters the “rooftoppers” or “sky-treaders”, a ragged troop who give us an insight into their bird’s eye view of the world. With their help, Sophie confronts her fears as she scales Notre Dame and leaps from roof to roof in pursuit of her quest.

Rooftoppers features traditional tropes of children’s literature such as orphans and rapturous descriptions of midnight feasts. However, Rundell’s voice is fresh and she handles these familiar images in interesting ways. For example, the “rooftoppers” are adamant that they are not street children since the street belongs to everyone. Their life is hard but private and liberated, they repeatedly claim that “the sky belongs to [them]”.

The reference to street urchins is one of just a few details which anchors the story in the nineteenth-century. There is also mention of an icebox, a horse and carriage and, significantly, the fact that women do not play cellos. The historical setting is not emphasised and the dialogue can appear incongruously modern at times but this is forgiven as the reader is swept away by Rundell’s style, characterisation and well-crafted plot.

Sophie’s guiding principle, inherited from Charles, is to “never ignore a possible” and her hopeful determination is what drives the narrative towards its thoroughly satisfying conclusion. Rigid convention and attempts to limit female agency are criticised in favour of imagination and bravery which the book’s child characters possess in spades.

Rooftoppers is Katherine Rundell’s second novel (her first novel was Girl Savage) and has already been awarded the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. I feel that this original, uplifting and completely charming story would also be a worthy recipient of the Carnegie Medal.

Carnegie Roehampton Readers Review: All the Truth That’s In Me

Carnegie Greenway MedalsThe Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove. 

Review: All the Truth’s that In Me by Julie Berry

By Clare Walters

This is both a teen love story and a murder mystery, set in what appears to be a seventeenth century American Puritan village called Roswell Station. Four years before the novel begins, a 14-year-old girl called Lottie Pratt is murdered and her friend, Judith, the protagonist, is abducted. Two years later Judith returns to Roswell Station – minus part of her tongue. Silent, shunned and traumatised, Judith is a reclusive 18-year-old at the beginning of the story.

The novel is unusual in that it uses the ‘second person’ narrative form. That is, one of the main characters, Lucas – the object of Judith’s affections and the person to whom all her thoughts are addressed – is referred to primarily by the second-person pronoun ‘you’.* This gives the novel an epistolary feel, as if the central character were writing a letter, or telling her secrets to a diary. But early on the reader is made aware that, as a result of her inflicted injury, Judith cannot speak; nor can she write, owing to a minimal education. So it is clear the words on the page are Judith’s private thoughts, an interior dialogue with the man she has loved all her life.

858365This method of telling the story provides an intense intimacy, as if we, the readers, are literally inside Judith’s head. Because of this intimacy, Judith’s turbulent emotions of frustration, isolation and passion are rendered especially vivid. After her mutilation, the wider community of Roswell Station fear her, believing her silence indicates she is mentally defective and may even be cursed. But the reader shares Judith’s secret and knows that, rather than being a ‘half-wit’, she is intelligent, alert and hungry for knowledge.

Because the narrative stays focused entirely on Judith’s thoughts, there is a potential risk of the story becoming narrow and linear. But Berry maintains a varied change of pace by the inclusion of time-shift flashbacks to earlier periods, as Judith recalls snatches of events from her troubled past. These fractured memories provide clues to the present and, like pieces in a jigsaw, they help both Judith and the reader solve the mystery of exactly what happened on the night of Lottie’s death.

The novel is packed with racy action, from adultery, murder, assult and suspected rape, to full-on battle and courtroom showdown, enough drama for a modern-day soap opera. Yet each action has its own logic, stemming partly the nature of the restricted, highly conventional, society in which the novel is set – where prejudice and ignorance combine in a combustible cocktail – and partly from each character’s own personal flaws and strengths. A jealous man, driven wild by his wife’s adultery, becomes a recluse. An embittered mother, worn down by life’s hardships, rejects her child. A brave girl, constant in her love, wins her man.

Judith’s lack of speech is both physical and emotional, and the structure of the novel reflects this. Rather than traditional chapters, the book is divided into short, sometimes tentative, sections that echo the protagonist’s struggle to regain her voice and re-establish her confidence. Chapter titles are avoided, and instead each section is headed with a single Roman numeral. This not only allows for a smooth transition between sections, some of which are only a few lines long, but also subtly evokes a more traditional era in which Roman numerals were more widely used. Within each section, the sentences are short too, giving a choppy, almost breathy, sense of delivery.

But although the sentences are often brief, the writing style has a poetic quality to it. The action takes place in a community that is steeped in both the rhythms of the Bible and of the natural world, and the language Berry uses reflects these two pillars of life. With almost Biblical cadence, Judith says, ‘I’ve watched you open your door each morning, these two years since I came back. Watched your throat swallow cold creek water, heard your feet tread through the forest leaves, seen your hands steer the plough. Were all your labours and your living for nothing? All the beauty you brought into my life, shall it go unpaid?’ (page 63).

This poetic sensibility can also be seen in the use of lyrics and melody, for music speaks to Judith of past freedom and happiness. Prior to her mutilation, she sang with her father. And at the point at which she begins to regain some speech – when she is at last emerging from her virtual entombment – she recalls a love song he taught her and sings it afresh. ‘Again and again I sing, until the sound is limber, light and pure. What is this thing inside me that can make such sound, after so long? How could I have let it be stilled?’ (page 140) As well as the actual sentiments expressed, both the alliteration and the rhythm here emphasise the strength of Judith’s emotions and give the writing a memorable richness that lifts this novel out of the ordinary.

Although clearly set in the past, this tale deals with the universal themes of love, loyalty, courage, forgiveness and truth, which are perennially relevant to readers. There are also clear parallels with current twenty-first century issues. Girls, for instance, may identify with the right for women to be heard, to be educated and to be judged on an equal footing with men. Disabled readers may recognise Judith’s isolation. But it also portrays a society alien to our own current Western culture, particularly with regard to sexual mores, and this could challenge a young reader to engage with an alternative perspective. So, overall, I feel this book unequivocally meets the Carnegie aim of a book that shows ‘outstanding literary quality’ and that provides both ‘pleasure’ and ‘a real experience that is retained afterwards’.

 

Book Review Series: Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle

The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by  NCRCL students and published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Review of Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone

By Eleanor Hamblen

Toby Alone

Tobie Lolness, the eponymous hero of Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone, is just one and a half millimetres tall and on a mission to save his parents along with the tree in which they live. This thoroughly enjoyable debut novel is an action-packed adventure story with emotional depth and an ecological message at its core.

The narrative begins in medias res as Toby lies injured and hunted, a fugitive from the miniature community which populate the tree. This exhilarating opening anticipates the pace of the narrative, bounding from episode to episode and interspersed with flashbacks. We learn that Toby’s current predicament is the result of his father’s discovery of a process which harnesses the tree’s energy. Professor Sim Lolness refuses to share the secret of his findings for fear of their potentially devastating effect. This enrages Jo Mitch, the greedy industrialist and dictator, who first banishes the Lolness family to the lower branches and then imprisons them. Having escaped, Toby must act quickly to divert both personal and environmental catastrophe.

In his contribution to the well-established miniature tradition within children’s fantasy Fombelle creates an immersive alternative world which readjusts the reader’s perspective. The tree represents the entire universe of the characters and thus the weevil, previously nothing more than a minor pest in eyes of the reader, is transformed into a monstrous creature which is capable of large-scale environmental destruction. Toby inherits his father’s deep admiration for the tree and a desire to preserve its life-giving force at all costs. Fombelle’s ecological agenda is clear and yet his didactic intentions do not detract from the imaginative delight of the story. Toby Alone strikes a balance between suspenseful action, relieving humour and compelling characterisation. Admittedly some characters, particularly Toby’s enemies, are rather two-dimensional which simplifies Fombelle’s otherwise powerful message. The novel is littered with lyrical descriptions all of which are beautifully rendered in English by Sarah Ardizzone’s skilful translation. The text is accompanied by François Place’s pen and ink illustrations which reinforce the reader’s impression of Fombelle’s intricate world and his use of scale.

Toby Alone speaks not only of ecological awareness but also of love, friendship and courage. The miniature hero’s coming of age is accelerated as he is forced to take on considerable responsibility. The novel ends by reopening the adventure, leaving the reader impatient to turn to its sequel Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. Fombelle’s work has received several awards in France including the 2007 Prix Sorcières in the Romans Juniors category while Ardizzone’s translation was awarded the 2009 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. One would hope that success stories such as this will help to encourage a higher level of translation in children’s publishing in the UK, thus giving young readers access to the literary output of other cultures.

Elle Hamblen Name: Eleanor Hamblen

Research area: My dissertation explores representations of nature, ecological messages and miniature communities in French and British children’s fantasy.

Path to Roehampton: BA in French. Extended essay on 17th century fairy tales. I never outgrew children’s books so was delighted to discover I could take an MA in them!

Favourite re-read: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge – my favourite book as a child and it didn’t disappoint the second time round.

Unsung Picture Book: Patrick by Quentin Blake – so joyful! (Mister Magnolia is another favourite)

Unsung Young Adult Novel: William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire trilogy.

 

Series edited by Erica Gillingham.