Going off the diet in honour of the wedding

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve ToltzAs someone with a low boredom threshold, an overly busy life, and who travels to work by bus, it has become very necessary over the past few years for me to read fairly short portable books.

Also it’s ideal to choose one that is light enough not to cause too much pain in the evening when I fall asleep mid-sentence and it falls on my nose.  Yet I also demand my reads to be unpredictable and intriguing, so while Mills and Boons are the perfect size for me their content sadly is not.  Lean protein is the thing.

My heart sank when I saw the size of A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz on the holds shelf, after my sister heartily recommended it, claiming she was going to marry its author.  I texted her along the lines of “What are you thinking? I can’t read a book that big these days!”  But she, with possibly a smaller attention span than even me, insisted.  And if Steve was going to become my brother-in-law, I felt I should flex my muscle if I could find it, read on my side and undertake the journey.

And what a ride it is!  A great intriguing unpredictable story, no wonder it was short-listed for the Man Brooker Prize 2008, and no wonder Philip blogged enthusiastically about it.   This is the kind of book that makes you wonder how the author could possible top it.  Go Steve, and stay in Australia where you are safe from ever having to meet my crazy sister.

With my new-found strength in book reading, and the realisation that I can cope with reading a fat book in bed at night, as long as its nutritious, and put a light one in my handbag for the bus trip, I have a more balanced diet.

So which fat books do you think are worth the risk?   I recommended the very weighty tome The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber to a friend recently, and it has been great fun hearing her describe how she manages to read it in bed without damaging herself.

PS I got back at my sister by recommending to her the book by the man I am going to marry.  Any guesses?  Clue: the book is a fat one and is by another Australian.  I think there will be a double wedding.  Just as soon as I’ve finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and my muscles are in top shape.

My new local Hero

Over the weekend I had a book I couldn’t put down, and that’s exactly what you need in a wet weekend, right? Unexpectedly, as I’m not usually a fantasy reader, I found myself in the fascinating world of an invisible flying lonely boy and was captivated. The curiously named children’s novel The Loblolly Boy is by local author James Norcliffe who is fast becoming one of my favourites. The story is timeless and grounded in the very real fears and emotions of children, and I couldn’t agree more with Margaret Mahy’s endorsement of the book as “a new classic”. I would recommend reading it aloud to the 9+ age group.

Even more impressive is the fact that three years ago I was in admiration of an altogether different kind of work by Norcliffe, a quite different world and much darker altogether, tightly written and intriguing The Assassin of Gleam, which won the won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for the best New Zealand fantasy novel of 2006. I am eagerly awaiting the next in this series.

Spaced out and starry-eyed

I have become a space junkie. It all began about 18 months ago when I read the light, accessible and informative children’s novel George’s secret key to the universe to my children. I learned a lot, and as it was written by Stephen Hawking and his daughter, I feel what I learned was fairly reliable. And my children kept saying: “Mum, didn’t you know that already?” just to confirm that they know everything and I’m a typical dumb parent.

Coincidentally the library hosted a space programme over the summer holidays, and I found myself wearing a pair of NASA overalls. You know, one of those delightful outfits that are much easier to get in to than out of, rather like a bad relationship or a black hole.

The space theme has continued to haunt me ever since. The favourite new book in our household last year was Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s a humorous, touching and exciting read about a boy who is constantly mistaken for an adult. This is awkward at times, especially when he ends up heading to the Moon supervising a bunch of kids. I read this book out loud to my children, which was tricky at times because I was laughing so much. In addition to the humour, there’s lots about families and especially the role of dads.

With a similar plot, i.e. bright kid heads to moon, but way more detail about space flight, is P.B. Kerr’s exciting new book One small step. It’s a great adventure story, which somehow manages to overcome its plentiful improbabilities and its unexpectedly philosophical end. Kids intrigued by space or who love adventure and can cope with the technical explanations will love this one.

Inevitably my space addiction has led me to the adult section, where I unearthed the story of the perilous voyage of Apollo 13 written by the commander of that mission, Jim Lovell with journalist Jeffrey Kluger. It’s a blow by blow account of the colossal amount of human resource, brainpower, commitment and teamwork that went in to bringing three astronauts safely home, and averting what could have been a mortal blow to the space programme. Although the technical side of the mission is intriguing in itself, the human story is what is totally compelling of course, even though it’s told in a slightly irritating Dan Brownesque cliffhanger manner.

To top all my space-themed reading off, the library launched a new interactive activity Space Explorer on the kids web pages last year. You can take a virtual journey through space and learn a few bits and pieces on the way. It also has links to other great space websites, library resources and children’s books on space.

So now that I know all about the space books in the children’s section, and was comforted to find from Erin’s post Great Gig in the Sky that I am not the only female space junkie librarian, I am keen to follow up on the books listed by Erin about Neil Armstrong.

And now we’re coming full circle as Stephen and Lucy Hawking have a released a follow-up title George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt which was up for review. So of course, I can’t help myself. The plan is that I will read it to my daughters over the holidays and review it. Watch this space! Well, it is the International Year of Astronomy, after all.

Best (and Worst) Children’s Books of the Year

One thing I hate are all those annual lists of  “the best this” and “the best that”.  I get very annoyed when I treat myself to a magazine only to find it is full of subjective lists.  But one such event is the exception to my rule: it’s the Best (and Worst) Children’s Books of the Year, a fun end-of-year event jointly run by the Canterbury Reading Association and Christchurch City Libraries.

It is traditionally well-attended by teachers, librarians and anyone interested in children’s books, and last Wednesday evening Fendalton Library’s boardroom was bursting at the seams. This year the speakers included bookseller Sheila Sinclair, teacher Heather Orman, and book designer Kim Dovey, who all spoke about the “best” and children’s librarian Louise Easter who spoke about where good ideas went wrong, such as the woman of a certain age who thought a cute wee story about Marie Antoinette’s dog would be a great idea but Louise implied this idea is one that should have had its head chopped off.

What was especially unique and fun about this year’s event was that all four speakers took the floor at once, and that their opinions didn’t always coincide. This was both enjoyable and encouraging to know that differing opinions are fine, and their discussions got us all thinking rather than passively receiving.

It was enlightening to have the perspective of primary school teacher Heather Orman who shared her wonderful ideas about how the books can be used in the classroom, such as the mathematical applications of the picture book 365 Penguins and the artistic possiblities of using the new and beautiful picture book version of Margaret Mahy’s well-known poem Bubble Trouble.

Sheila Sinclair delighted us with her lovely humour and shared some special titles that many of us hadn’t yet discovered – the pop-up book of Leonardo da Vinci’s designs Inventions, will be a great Christmas present for adults or children.

I will also be looking to read the Barnaby Grimes series, which sound like great historical adventures set in an Edwardian kind of world.  Sheila also read us the delightful picture book Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox, which is selling very well because it is the perfect gift to give new parents.  Children’s librarians have also been quick to snap this one up for use in their Babytimes and Storytimes programmes.

The extra special addition of Kim Dovey to this panel, with her point of view and passion as a book designer, was an inspired choice. When how a book looks and feels is so crucial to its success, it is a huge shame that book design is not paid more attention. We all know that Snake and Lizard won awards for its author Joy Cowley and that Gavin Bishop has been praised for his marvellous illustrations. But how many people are aware that it was one of our local talents Kim Dovey of Book Design Ltd who packaged the delightful story and quality illustrations into a beautiful tangible object for the world to enjoy? Kim spoke of the importance of book covers truly conveying the story that is within its pages, and challenged some of the titles mentioned for failing to do this. She spoke of the need for a designer to use their imagination to achieve this. Kim clearly has imagination, flair and a passion for her work and it came through.  She made particular mention of the picture book Roadworks, which as well as being on a much-adored topic for preschoolers, is well-designed throughout including gravelly looking endpapers.  Of course someone then asked where the chewing gum was.

At the risk of annoying people like me who don’t like lists, here are the other books that received special attention.
The enemy by Davide Cali
How to heal a broken wing by Bob Graham
Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton
Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
Home and Away by John Marsden
Lee Raven Boy Thief by Zizou Corder
Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner
Bone by bone by Tony Johnston (originally published as Bone by Bone by Bone)
Knife of never letting go by Patrick Ness
Magician of Hoad by Margaret Mahy
Scorched Bone by Vince Ford
Piano Rock: a 1950s childhood by Gavin Bishop

Short blurbs about the above titles, and other good reads from the past year, have been compiled into a Holiday Reading List by staff at Christchurch City Libraries.

Shaun Tan rules!

Shaun TanToday I’m spellbound.  It’s happened before, and the same author is responsible.  It’s that unassuming and brilliant talent, author-illustrator Shaun Tan who is renown for his sophisticated picture books.  His newest book Tales From Outer Suburbia is a beautiful, touching, awe-inspiring collection of more than a dozen tales told visually and verbally.  To be honest I don’t want to taint it by describing it further, as it’s a work of art, but I can say that I have loved the three stories I have read so far and can’t wait to spend more time with it. It’s one of those books you want everyone else to know about, so I’ll leave it at that. Ignore that it’s in the children’s section of the library (librarians have to put books somewhere!), this is a book for all of us.

Ready for Reading

Boy readingI attended an excellent kids’ birthday party last week. But apart from the chips and sausage rolls, and me eating too much, this party had one big difference! Held at Linwood Library, this was also a party to launch Christchurch City Library’s new two-year pilot programme, Ready for Reading.

The programme is aimed at four year olds, and follows on from the successful Books for Babies programme. I know of one four year old already who has been enjoying their pack, which contains a book, a jigsaw and a pamphlet for parents on how they can help with those pre-reading skills. The book is just lovely, and was written and illustrated locally.

It’s great to know that initiatives like these are going ahead thanks to the hard work and good will of those people with a passion for the well-being of our young children.

Children’s Books from across the Ditch

The following books were launched at the Children’s Book Council of Australia Conference which I attended recently, and will be well worth a look when they come through to us shortly.

I’m still awake still by Elizabeth Honey and Sue Johnson
Wish I had this when my children were sleep-defiant toddlers. It even comes with a CD of sleep-inducing (yeah, right) songs. The book was launched by the authors in their pyjamas and sounds like lots of fun. The story goes: Fiddy is wide awake at bedtime. He sings a rainbow pyjamas song, and goodnight to his gumboots and monkey, but he’s still awake. The possum outside knows how to rest, and the big friendly bear, but Fiddy needs the song about the planets before he can close his eyes.

GenesisGenesis by Bernard Beckett
Like Phar Lap, this one is from our side of the ditch, but it was great to be there for its Ozzie launch. Bernard Beckett’s short speech to launch the book was quite possibly the most dynamic and entertaining part of the whole conference. This is a must-read title. I was pleased to hear that it is also being launched into the adult market, and justly so.

The Pumpkin Eater from Pondicherry by Bruce Atherton
This is a book I could have quite easily dismissed as being more scatological humour told in (shock, horror) rhyme. However, the author read it out loud and thwarted my prejudices. It really is well-told and very funny. The toilet humour is in context and not overdone. I think this will work well as a read-aloud to 5-7 year olds.

RoseA Rose for the ANZAC boys by Jackie French
The launch of this title followed an empassioned speech by Jackie French on the subject of historical fiction, in which she spoke about the capacity for historical fiction to not just tell us the gritty truth, but to also show us the joys, hope and what is possible in life despite of severe hardship. She spoke of it empowering children to know about the past and to know what can be survived and achieved.

Quizzical by Leanne Davidson
Originally this was a self-published title, but after its great success in schools, Five Mile Press have published it and are due to publish its follow-up title Money Bags next year.

Not launched, but coming soon:

Another title to watch out for is John Marsden’s novelised version of Hamlet which will come out in September. I was lucky enough to be given an advance copy which I really enjoyed, perhaps because I found it to be the lazy man’s way of reading Shakespeare!

Great Young Adult author to visit Christchurch

Red spikesI have just read the most riveting book, and it has made me very excited that the author is the keynote speaker at the South Island Children’s Librarians’ Conference this year.   Margo Lanagan’s Touching earth lightly is totally absorbing, gutsy, honest, shocking and real.  This is top-class writing, perfectly structured.  Margo Lanagan is clearly someone who truly understands the complexity of the human race, particularly young people, and is not afraid to be completely honest about it.   This novel is for older teenagers and adults, and not for the faint-hearted.  Her latest collection of short stories Red Spikes won Book of the Year, Older Readers, in the 2007 Children’s Book Council of Australia’s book awards.

By all accounts, Lanagan is an excellent speaker, and also a very challenging and perceptive social and literary commentator.  I recommend her work to anyone interested in young adult literature, or who works with young adults, and thoroughly look forward to her keynote address when she comes to Christchurch in March.