My Lockdown Books: Thirty Eight

I have come to the conclusion that Meg Rosoff is a genius. I’ve been reading her books since How I Live Now which I really didn’t like. I thought it was flawed and convoluted and generally an unsatisfying read. I was part of the Carnegie Medal judging panel that controversially didn’t short leet it. Perhaps it was the controversy that made me carry on reading Meg’s books.

Because, in spite of everything and even with hindsight, I still don’t think that How I Live Now is a brilliant book. But many other people did. So maybe I needed to find out what I was missing in her books. Now, I have read everything she has written since then as though I can’t help myself. I don’t watch out for her books, counting the days until a new one appears, but somehow they impinge themselves upon my consciousness.

When I picked up Picture Me Gone, I could hardly put it down. As much as it’s a story at all, it’s the story of Mila and her father and their journey to find his oldest friend who has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, son and dog.

But, of course, it’s not really about the story; it’s about ideas just as all of Meg’s books are. And this time it’s about truth and how well one person can ever really know another. And it’s brilliant. Written in Meg’s distinctive low-key style, it wraps itself around you and doesn’t let you go until you reach the end.

My Lockdown Books: Thirty Seven

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel is a book I had to read and my heart sank when I saw it. I was judging for the Carnegie Medal and it was on the long leet.  This appeared to be yet another sci-fi/fantasy mixture, two of my least favourite genres.  But one of the non-negotiable requirements of being on the judging panel was a commitment  to read everything…

And one should never, of course, judge a book by its cover and when I finally steeled myself to read it, I was enchanted. It’s set in an alternative past (it feels Edwardian) on an airship and tells the story of Kate and Matt who are first-class passenger and crew respectively. It’s a fast-paced adventure but it’s also a character study and has a great supporting cast.

Now, I use this as my example to young people of how the only way you can judge a book is by reading it.  Had it not been for the Medal I’d have missed this entirely.  As it is, I enjoyed it very much and then went on to spend my own money on the other two books in the trilogy!

My Lockdown Books: Nineteen

I’ve met Frank Cottrell Boyce and he’s a delightful man.  We should have met at the Carnegie Kate Greenaway Medal award ceremony in July 2005.  However, the devastation wreaked on London by terrorists the day before meant that the ceremony was cancelled.  Instead there was a much lower-key award made at the end of the summer in CILIP’s building in Bloomsbury.  I seem to recall that the judges and Frank convened on the pavement outside for photographs.  And as we hung around, we chatted.

The book we were celebrating was, of course, Millions.  I had enjoyed it very much and I continued to read Frank’s books after that, often reviewing them.  Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth came to me from Catherine at Macmillan with a post-it list attached.  That seemed a bit random to me and not something Catherine normally did.  However, once I’d read the book, it all made perfect sense.

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I felt a strange sense of recognition as I read on and gradually I realised that the book was set in and around Dumfries, the town in southern Scotland that we moved to as I was about to start school.  And it seemed to me that it was in fact set in my part of Dumfries as I wrote in my review for The Scotsman.

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is whimsical, heart-wrenching and hilarious. Prez is a boy whose life has been turned upside down causing him to retreat into silence. But when Sputnik erupts into his life all that changes. For the better? Well, eventually. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s books are always enjoyable and this one, set in and around Dumfries, is no exception. As a very former pupil of Troqueer Primary I was delighted to find myself reading about my old haunts but wherever you’re from you’ll enjoy walking those streets with Prez, Sputnik and their friends.

As I said, I’ve read most of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s books and it’s hard to choose you favourite book by an author you like but I think this might be mine.

My Lockdown Books: Eleven

I tell anyone who’s unwary enough to stop and listen that this book is about me.  At least, I qualify, its heroine and I are roughly the same age and it’s almost set in Moray where I was that teenager in the 1980s!  The fishing industry and its future, which form part of the backdrop of this book, are concerns I recognise.

Saskia’s Journey by Carnegie Medal winner Theresa Breslin is a story of self-discovery, family secrets and a journey to the north east of Scotland now and then.  It’s set in a fishing community very like the one I group up in and depicts it very well.  Like Saskia, I was an outsider.  To belong in Lossiemouth means you and your family have lived there for generations.  Being an outsider wasn’t bad and didn’t mean I wasn’t accepted.  But I was set a little apart from the locals.  To be fair, so were the people from Hopeman six miles along the coast!

Theresa Breslin is a remarkable writer who never lets her research get in the way of telling a good story.  She uses all the knowledge she acquires without ever letting her readers see her hard work.  Her plots and characters unfold and develop naturally.  That is why I read her books.  With hindsight I see I have absorbed information and pondered situations but, as I read, only the story matters.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Saskia’s Journey is my favourite of Theresa’s books.  But I’d happily recommend any of them to you.

Carnegie Medal

The nominations for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals were published today.  As a former judge, I’m always excited, interested and sometimes disappointed.  Like any other young people’s book enthusiast I have my own opinions not only of the books that make it but also of the general trends in the award.  It’s a long time now since I was on the judging panel and almost inevitably I have a suspicion that it was better in my day!  However, even if I could define what I mean by ‘better’, the truth is that the entire process is highly subjective.  Yes there are guidelines and criteria but it would be disingenuous to suggest that personal preference is entirely laid aside during the judging process.  After all, the panel is made up of readers who are all affected in different ways by books.

Having said all that, though, there have been some recent nominations and/or longlists that have left me feeling distinctly uneasy about the way the Medal seemed to be going.  In my opinion they were full of worthy books dealing with some kind of topical issue reminding me very much of the didactic novels of a former time that were roundly slated.  I don’t mean to suggest that none of the titles was worthy of inclusion but the lists made me feel weary.

All this means that I was nervous about today’s unveiling.  But I needn’t have been!  With reservations (see below), the nominations list (available at https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2020_nominations_carnegie.html) is one of the best, most diverse I have seen in a long time.  For those who don’t know, any member of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) may nominate one title.  In practice, most of those who do so are children’s and young people’s specialists working in public and school libraries.  They’re the ones who see (and hopefully read) a wide range of books throughout the year.  Many of the nominators are members of CILIP’s special interest group the Youth Libraries Group (YLG), the body that actually makes the award on behalf of CILIP.

Every year I nominate a book that I deem worthy.  Only once has a book I nominated won.  That was Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman.  But I persevere.  It’s tricky though as there are so many excellent books to choose from.  Even in the days when I could nominate two titles I swithered until almost the closing date.  Now it’s almost impossible and I find myself second-guessing what might be nominated by my fellow professionals.  This year I had four titles in the running and actually I was fairly sanguine as I felt they were all books that others would nominate.  BUT I HAVE BEEN CAUGHT OUT!  Two of the four are missing from the list and I want to shout at someone but I’m not sure whom.  Maybe myself.  Did I make the wrong choice?  But who’d ever have thought that no-one else would nominate the superlative Elizabeth Laird’s A House Without Walls?  I’m pretty sure it’s eligible in terms of publication date and it is brilliant.  I’m less surprised that The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth is missing.  Not, I hasten to add, because it isn’t good enough; just because Laura is less well-know than Liz Laird.  As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I loved The Light Between Worlds.  One of the criterion for the Carnegie Medal is that the book should live with you after you’ve finished reading it.  Laura’s book didn’t do that; rather I continued to live in it.

On a more positive note I am relieved that The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay has made the list.  And so have a number of other books I enjoyed: Rosie Loves Jack by Mel Darbon, Clownfish by Alan Durant, The House of Light by Julia Green, The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis, All the Lonely People by David Owen, Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer and Anna at War by Helen Peters.  If you haven’t read these make them your reading list for the rest of the year.

And, of course, to those add my nomination.  The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery.

 

 

6th December

It was The Edge of the Cloud by KM Peyton that first made me aware of the Carnegie Medal.  I borrowed it from Lossiemouth Library back in the day and the front cover had an image of the Medal on it.  I didn’t know what it was at that point but it was clear that this book had won it and it was significant. The Edge of the Cloud is still one of my favourite books – and I now have a signed copy, a treasured possession.  Set in the run-up to the First World War, it’s the story of Will and Christina and Will’s passion for flying.  It’s also the second book in Flambards quartet, to which, I might add in passing, has now been added The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery (written with Kathy Peyton’s approval).

Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel is the concluding book in Michael Gerard Bauer’s trilogy revolving around Ishmael and his friends. It had me by turns hysterical with laughter, deep in thought and in floods of tears.  When I finished it I was devastated because I knew there was no more.  Readers who don’t know Ishmael will want to start at the beginning (Don’t Call Me Ishmael and Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs) in order to get to know the boys and live with them as they progress through high school in Australia.  Bauer’s writing is deceptively simple, easy to read and dialogue driven.  He meets difficult issues head on and allows his characters to deal with them.  The characterisation is truly outstanding; even the fringe characters leap off the page as they interact, grow and develop.  The plot twists and turns entirely believably, creating a world that even I, a middle-aged, female Scot, would like to inhabit.

Collecting the Carnegie

I first made an abortive attempt to collect a copy of every winner of the Carnegie Medal back in 2007 when I was involved in organising the Carnegie Children’s Book Festival in Dunfermline. I did track down some of the older titles but since then I’ve moved house twice and not all of them have survived those processes!  Now, ten years on as the eightieth anniversary of the Medal is celebrated, I’m starting again.

Some of the books have been part of my life for a long time irrespective of their Medal-winning status. It was The Edge of the Cloud by KM Peyton that first made me aware of the prize.  I borrowed it from Lossiemouth Library back in the day and the front cover had an image of the Medal on it.  I didn’t know what it was at that point but it was clear that it was significant. The Edge of the Cloud is still one of my favourite books – and I now have a signed copy, a treasured possession.  An even earlier acquisition is Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome, the very first winner.  I read all of the Swallows and Amazons books at a very early age and they remain on my shelves.  And so, in an aside, does Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick, a fictionalised account of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia.  It was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal but unaccountably didn’t win.

There are other winners on my shelves including the Scottish trio of The Wind on the Moon by Eric Linklater, The Stronghold by Mollie Hunter and Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin.  Naturally, I have A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce as I was involved in awarding those two Medals.  And as I looked back through the list of winners I realised that along the way I’ve acquired many others simply because they’re books I want to have: One by Sarah Crossan, Just in Case by Meg Rosoff, Tamar by Mal Peet,The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo, Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty, Wolf by Gillian Cross, The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Last Battle by CS Lewis, We Couldn’t Leave Dinah by Mary Treadgold, Visitors from London by Kitty Barne, The Circus is Coming by Noel Streatfeild and The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett.

So here we go again. Some will be easy to find as they’re still in print, others will be trickier and a few, I have no doubt, will be nigh on impossible. A Valley Grows Up anyone?  Or The Story of Your Home?  But I love a challenge!