Roehampton Readers: The Promise by Laura Carlin

Review: The Promise by Laura Carlin

By Kay Waddilove

Laura Carlin is an award-winning artist who has illustrated many children’s books, including The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. The Promise was selected by The New York Times as the best illustrated title of 2014, and came 19th (out of 51) in a list of ‘Best 2014 Women-Illustrated Picture Books’ – a somewhat dubious selection, which does not (surprise, surprise) appear to have been matched by a ‘Best Men-Illustrated’ prize … However, given the word limits imposed by the NCRCL blog reviews, I intend to refrain – with some difficulty – from engaging in the murky and well-worn debate around gender-restricted prize lists. Although I would be fascinated to know how the outstandingly successful Janet Ahlberg, Ruth Brown, Lauren Child, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy, Helen Oxenbury, Beatrix Potter – a random selection of names culled from a quick scan of my kidslit shelf – might have viewed such phenomena. Not to mention visiting Kate Greenaway’s grave (located in Hampstead Cemetery if anyone is interested) to check for signs of spinning. Certainly Carlin herself should be immune to any implication that the abilities of high-achieving women are somehow unusual; the ‘dog on its hind legs, walking well’ phenomenon. In addition to her successful illustration career, Laura is a noted ceramicist who has won the V&A award and been honourably mentioned in the Bologna Ragazzi Award, as well as being voted an ‘ADC Young Gun’ – one of the 50 most influential international creatives under 30 years of age. She also currently works with Quentin Blake in an advisory role for the development of the House of Illustration, which will be mounting an exhibition of her work between October 2015 and January 2016.

The Promise is a fantasy story of discovery with an environmental, political and philosophical theme. In a mean and ugly city, a young thief lives by stealing, but when she tries to snatch an old woman’s bag, she is forced to promise something in return – to “plant them all”. Discovering that the bag is full of acorns, the girl begins to understand the meaning of her promise; in starting to plant them, she embarks on a journey that changes her own life and that of others. Nicola Davies, author of the text, has written a number of previous titles that, like this one, are informed by the belief that a relationship with nature is essential to every human being, and that there is currently an urgent need to renew that relationship. The narrative was inspired by Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees (1953), and the stories complement each other, both highlighting the transformative power of trees, although The Promise is set in an urban rather than a rural landscape. The vision evoked by word and picture captures the young girl’s journey from a grim urban reality to the beauty and vitality of a changed world, in which people and nature live in harmony in the city. Interviewed on the Carnegie website, Laura Carlin describes The Promise as “a book about hope”.

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Roehampton Readers: The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean

Review: The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean (2013)

By Alison Waller

Comity Pinny lives in the middle of nowhere – at a tiny telegraph post in the Australian outback with her recently widowed father, to be precise. At first glance, Kinkindele Repeater Station does not seem to be the most exciting setting for a Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest fictional offering, but as ever, the author manages to conjure up a world teeming with life and energy, even in the most remote of places. Trees, snakes, camels, and horses emerge as vibrant figures in this landscape, while the Station itself is the hub of various social interactions and inevitable tensions between the employees of the British Australian Telegraph Company, the local people who live on the land, and Afghan traders who bring supplies and news. For young Comity, it is the home where her mother used to tell her stories and play the piano, and where her only friend is the Aborigine boy Fred with whom she shares a rich imaginative life. When a new telegraph assistant called arrives, their peaceful existence is destroyed. Quartz Hogg is exciting, but obnoxious and predatory, disrupting Herbert Pinny’s professional operation of the telegraph wire and relentlessly persecuting Fred for daring to befriend a white girl. When Hogg starts drinking, a whole series of events are set in motion that threaten the integrity of the Telegraph Company and the fragile peace of the whole area…and Comity emerges as the remarkable heroine who must save the day.

The telegraph running across this vast nation is a brilliant metaphor for a story that deals in connections, miscommunications, and the relationships between communities as well as between mankind and the environment. The novel also really thrives on the strength of McCaughrean’s heroine, who is vulnerable and sometimes afraid but also clever and brave, often without knowing it. The author has stated before that most of her central characters ‘lack confidence but overcome their timidity or low self-esteem to win through in the end,’ and by the end of The Middle of Nowhere, Comity has certainly been on this journey. She is supported throughout by a cast of comic characters – Quartz Hogg and the Pinny’s awful relatives, ‘the obnoxious Blighs’ are effective as grotesque caricatures – and there is also a sympathetic attempt to show how individuals might negotiate difference, particularly as Comity comes to question things she has been told about the exotic Afghan people. For me, McCaughrean’s only faltering note comes with her portrayal of Fred, whose mixed Aborigine-British dialect is initially difficult to digest and whose role in the story loses momentum towards the thrilling climax. Other than this slight quibble, I enjoyed the novel immensely: it is a worthy addition to McCaughrean’s impressive catalogue of novels for young readers.

Carnegie Greenway MedalsThe Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, 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. 

Roehampton Readers: More Than This by Patrick Ness

Review: More Than This by Patrick Ness

By Judy Digby

I feel like starting by saying, ‘Stop reading or listening to this now if you haven’t read the book’.  It is so cleverly written that I don’t want to spoil it for anyone; to interfere with that delicious interaction with a new text, trying to understand at your own pace and in your own way, consuming it because you want to know what happens.  There is a twist to the tale, or a flipping of conception but I am not sure if that really is the spoiler.  It is the masterful way the book unfolds that gave me so much enjoyment, both in reading the story and in admiration for the author.

Patrick Ness balances and interweaves the storylines from both ‘lives’ and each is compelling. He uses the simple device of italicising one strand, which avoids confusion; there is enough in the plot to engagingly puzzle the reader. Has Seth, the teenage protagonist, drowned and ended up in his own personal hell as he thinks, reliving painful memories, all alone?  Intriguingly he still has a body and physical needs.  He has woken up disconnected, which is significant, in a deserted yet familiar neighbourhood.  It reminded me of a film with Will Smith in a post-apocalyptic New York where he looks through abandoned shops for supplies.   But as Ness says in the interview accessed via the Carnegie Shadowing Site (well worth watching), waking up and being perhaps the last person on earth is ‘Such a great old science fiction trope’.  He explains that it is a very apt analogy for the feeling of being completely alone that teenagers experience and it was how the book started taking shape for him.

I’ve cheated and I’ve gone online and I’ve heard what Ness says about his own book and now I can’t forget it.  I suppose I should have been concentrating on the text.  The book itself is partly about our reliance on the internet.  ‘The danger of online is that it feels like life.  But it’s not life.  It feels like the world but it’s not the world.  It’s a part of the world.’ Ness says in the interview. I wasn’t living vicariously in a second life, I was just curious about someone who could write such a powerful opening passage and develop a theme so skilfully.
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Roehampton Readers: When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

Review: When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

By Lorna Collins

When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan is about a 16 year old boy, Dylan Mint, who suffers from Tourette Syndrome and attends a special school. Brian Conaghan himself was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome when he was 37, although he was not one of the apparently rare sufferers for whom involuntary swearing is an issue. Conaghan describes feeling as though there was a dog inside him which would occasionally come out of his mouth making him bark when he was stressed, and he uses this experience as the title of the book.

Although apprehensive about reading a book which has quite so much swearing in it, I enjoyed the book to begin with, and was rapidly drawn into Dylan’s world. Conaghan deals with the subject of Tourette Syndrome with empathy and humour. There are comical threads thoughout the book – Dylan’s ‘bucket list’ (he believes he only has a few months to live), his mother’s boyfriend ‘the taxi driver’ and the fact that we become increasingly sceptical of Dylan’s explanation of his father’s absence from the family home. The book has similarities with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (2003); however, Conaghan’s book is not as skilfully written and loses its way in the middle with what I felt to be an overload of foul language and a concentration on the seedier aspects of the minds of teenage boys. In particular, the chapter in which Dylan is bullied by the two older boys seemed to plumb the depths unnecessarily. Dylan also seems very immature for a 16 year old, behaving more like a younger boy, and I had to keep reminding myself that he was supposed to be 16.

The book regains its credibility towards the end when Conaghan returns to the subjects of Dylan’s ‘bucket list’, his mother’s boyfriend (whom Dylan resolutely called the ‘taxi driver’ and is persistently puzzled as to why his mother keeps inviting a taxi driver in), and the real whereabouts of Dylan’s father.

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Speakers Announced for 22nd IBBY UK/NCRCL MA Conference

Steering the Craft: 

Navigating the process of creating children’s books in the 21st century

Saturday 14th November 2015

Froebel College, University of Roehampton

Ursula Le Guin provides the title for the 22nd annual NCRCL MA/IBBY UK Conference, a writer and thinker who has contributed a great deal to discourse surrounding the craft of writing. This year’s conference starts with the concerns of Le Guin’s Steering The Craft (1998), considering the role of writers in book production, and moves beyond this to explore the wider processes involved in creating books for young people. Developments in digital technology and social media, along with the shifting economic climate, have transformed the landscape of book production in recent years and this conference seeks to consider the implications of these changes for children’s books. We invite delegates and contributors to think about book production in the widest sense, taking in the various role of: authors; illustrators; translators; editors; designers; printers, agents; publishing houses/marketing teams; book reviewers; booksellers; curriculum design….and so on.

The conference will include a range of exciting parallel talks, plus keynote presentations from well-known writers, publishers, academics, and key figures in the children’s literature domain – we are delighted to confirm the following speakers:

  • Julie Eccleshare
  • Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray
  • Nicky Singer
  • Clémentine Beauvais
  • Daniel Hahn
  • Publishing industry panel:
    • Anna McQuinn (Alanna Books)
    • David Maybury (Scholastic)
    • Barry Cunningham (Chicken House)
  • Melvin Burgess

The full programme will be available in September 2015 when we will also open for bookings – this event is likely to be very popular, so we advise you to book your place early. Check back here on the NCRCL blog for updates or follow us on Facebook or Twitter!