Saturday, 30 March 2013


This review is a little out-of-the-normal for me, as it's of a chapter book and not a picture book. Orion Press asked me if I would review this for them, and being keen to support Irish authors, I took them up on the offer. Hagwitch is a novel for older children by the Irish author Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick - she has also written some picture books which look good - watch this space for more reviews.

Hagwitch is a novel which is split between two eras. Lally is the daughter of a puppeteer living on a barge in modern day London, while Flea is a playwright's apprentice in 16th Century London. The style reminded me of Daphne du Maurier, with a little touch of Angela Carter added in to keep the style contemporary without losing it's magical Gothic atmosphere. I was impressed by the mature tone set by Fitzpatrick (I may just be getting old, but I had to stop listening to Radio One because I just felt it was really patronising and made me cringe). I also didn't feel like I was reading a book that had to stop and explain itself any more than a good adult's book would, or that it was dumbed down in any way. It may have been a long time ago that I was young, but I certainly remember strongly disliking several books which just struck me as hollow and talking down to me.

Lally has grown up without her mother. She, rather unusually, calls her dad Eoin, and is quite happy to take on two of the other travelling performers in the floating puppet-show as her mother-figures. It's as if she has been fostered into this theatrical family; she does ask about her birth mother, but does not dwell on her loss or feel like a victim because of it. The only company that she is in want of is someone her own age.

With the company of a boy her own age, Gilles, who comes to live on the Beetle from Paris with his mother, comes the unravelling of Lally's world. Lally's world is antiquated and isolated. The French duo introduce her to Ipads and Facebook. For the first time she admits to herself that she is just too scared to ask about her mother. She runs away and questions her relationship to Eoin; she realises that needs to experience more than just the comfort of her life on The Beetle.

The story of Flea is interspersed with Lally's story, telling of his time with the theatre and his parallel experience with a block of Hawthorne. The Hawthorne adds the supernatural element to the story. In the 16th century, it's sprite controls Flea's master, while in the present day it controls Eoin. Both men are spurred into a flurry of destructive creativity; both men are lucky enough  to have young wards who are able to see what is happening and care enough take drastic steps to save them. There's a good balance of tension and the story really picks up pace towards the end with the dark goings on surrounding what turns out to be the same cursed tree.

I ended the story with a real sense of belonging, what it is to be part of a small community with a sense of family. Both Lally and Flea are separated for a time from their families but don't lose the bond they have forged. Their respective stories show that is ok to care, that it's normal for families to fight and that it's normal to get through it. And all nicely told without being sentimental about it.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Silence Will Fall

I don't think a picture book has left me pondering what it all means hours after I've sat down and read it to the girls. I read Ben Morley's The Silence Seeker to them this morning. They are off playing now, and I'm still trying to make sense of it; I guess that might be the point. Take some stereotypes, challenge them, then leave a big open ending for you to fill.
The Silence Seeker is the story of Joe, who asks his mum about the Asylum Seekers who have moved in next door. He doesn't quite understand and thinks the boy next door  is a 'Silence Seeker', and wants to help. The reasons for the family seeking asylum are only revealed to us through Joe's mum: 'he has come from far away, looking for peace and quiet'. No attempt to give Joe an understanding of war, or oppressive regimes, or any other reason a family may seek asylum; but I guess it's just a true reflection of how we sugar coat everything for our kids.
Joe takes his neighbour for a walk, trying to find a nice quiet spot for him. Every quiet space Joe can think of is filled with people. Some just having fun, some being antisocial, as well as some homeless people. This city is loud and scary. On a deeper level, it exposes a bit of the darker side of our society and made me think about how we are so quick to judge others, and how hypocritical we can be about ourselves as the perfect society about to be over-run. Fear can work both ways. Joe is upset to find that his neighbours have spirited away in the night. Have they been driven out, or rehoused? Have they been deported? We never find out. It's up to us to draw our own conclusions, to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see what thoughts might be staring back at us.
I'm leaving the first stereotype in the book to last. This book is a story of a black boy and a white boy, who on the cover are sitting together on the steps outside their building. There's a lot of jumping to conclusions in our everyday lives about where people are from. How often do trolls post 'send them home' when they see a black or Asian person accused of something, with only an assumption of someone's origin from their skin colour. Can you be British and black? Are white people ever oppressed? The best thing about picture books is they can make you look at yourself without saying a word. 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Emily's Top Books

Emily is just at the age where she likes the same books over and over. So, to celebrate world book day, here's her top 5 books:

Chu's Day, by Neill Gaiman. Say it out loud, and have a smile. Emily loves following the story of Chu and his sneezing and is delighted to join in: ahhh AHHH AAHHHH...
The illustrations are quite traditional, but with a nod to modern life. It's hard not to have a chuckle at the little mice at their computers in the drawers that used to contain index cards. That's progress for you!

The Hueys in the New Jumper, by Oliver Jeffers. Emily just loves the simple illustrations, the bright orange jumper and chatting about what the Hueys are up to, especially the tiny Huey who gets ever so upset. I have to read this about 5 times a day at the moment.

Green Eggs and Ham, By Dr. Suess. Now, this is a little too long for Emily to sit through at the moment, but she loves the beginning, skips a bit of the middle and loves the end. She instantly recognises any Dr Suess book and greets it with a cuddle and an 'IT'S SAM!' whether he's in the book or not. She loves Sam and his ham.

We had this book from the library for ages, because every time I tried to return it Emily thought the world was ending. I'm actually a bit worried if she sees this blog it'll remind her, so I've distracted her with Peppa Pig and some crisps. Bad mummy. Soren Lorensen is in this book (Lola's invisible friend) and Emily loves trying to spot him.

Emily was given a big bag of Maisy books for a Christmas present, and this is her favourite one; it's a great picture of a modern library. Maisy goes to find a book and a quiet spot to read, but finds computers, photocopiers and an aquarium amongst the books. There's a story time for all her friends before they check their books out and go outside to play, and Maisy gets a quiet spot to read her book.