My Lockdown Books: Fifty

Of all TS Eliot’s Practical Cats, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is my favourite. From ‘the whisper down the line…when the Night Mail’s ready to depart’ the rhythm, rhyme, pace and story of the poem draw the reader in to Skimbleshanks’ domain. Arthur Robins brings the word pictures to life with his spirited, dynamic illustrations (even if he is a little confused about which way is east). Those who have read the earlier poems in this series will be delighted to spot Macavity and Mr Mistoffelees on board, heading for ‘the northern part of the northern hemisphere’. An ideal Christmas present, this is such fun that you’ll probably want to keep it for yourself!

That was my review in The Scotsman for this illustrated edition of TS Eliot’s poem.  I first met Skimbleshanks when I was a pupil at Troqueer Primary School in Dumfries.  I think my class learned it for a school concert.  It was the first time that I saw a place I knew immortalised in fiction, even if it was just a fleeting glimpse: ‘You saw him at Dumfries where he summons the police if there’s anything they ought to know about…’

Forty five years one from my first meeting, I still love Skimbleshanks and I’ll share his story at the drop of a hat whether you’re interested or not!

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.

Cute Cats, Cruel Cats, Crazy Cats

I love cats and over the years I’ve reviewed lots of books in which they star.  Here are just a few of my favourites.

It’s summertime and Ava is enjoying the seaside. But with Squishy McFluff in tow there always seems to be something that can go wrong.  Whether digging a hole, buying an ice-cream or chasing invisible fish, nothing goes quite to plan for the inseparable twosome.  And then Squishy goes missing.  Pip Jones and Ella Okstad return with another funny adventure starring the little girl and her invisible cat in the early chapter book Seaside Rescue!

In This is NOT a Cat! by David Larochelle and Mike Wohnoutka the first lesson at mouse school is how to recognise danger.  And danger, of course, means cats.  It’s a simple story but clever and very funny with a double twist in the tail!  The text is repetitive, ideal for encouraging small children to join in, and the illustrations are strong and dynamic.  I especially love the expressive faces of the three pupils.  Much of the plot is told pictorially and repeated readings will only enhance the enjoyment.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, one little girl thinks.  When a cat turns up on her doorstep and makes it clear he’s there to stay, she is quite pleased.  But she struggles to find a name for him.  Finally, however, the right one presents itself. I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat by Simon Philip and Ella Bailey is a simple and warm story told in words and augmented by cute pictures in gentle pastel shades.  The dynamic characters jump off the page and into the imagination.

The Lost Kitten  is a charming and engaging picture book by LEE and Komako Sakai. Hina and her mother are surprised when a cat appears on their doorstep and seems to be asking them to take care of her tiny kitten.  But they take on the task.  When her mother goes to buy some cat food, Hina is left in charge of the kitten.  An adventure and a fright ensue for both but all ends well and Hina is finally able to name the new kitten.  The delightful illustrations perfectly capture the emotion of this gentle and delightful tale.

Stanley the Amazing Knitting Cat  by Emily MacKenzie is crazy and quirky and colourful and fun. Mice are safe around Stanley and he doesn’t care about dozing in the sunshine.  Stanley loves to knit.  All his friends are dressed in his handiwork and stay warm thanks to him.  But when he runs out of wool before an important competition he is forced into desperate measures.  With its cute animals, bright woollens and happy ending, this is a joyful story about friendship and loyalty.

The Cat, the Mouse and the Runaway Train is a rollicking, rolling adventure of suspicion and friendship. Peter Bently’s resonantly rhyming tale is of Carruthers, the mouse-chasing station cat who rules the roost, petted by the stationmaster.  But when Carruthers’ tail gets stuck in the rail as a runaway train approaches, who will save the day?  Steve Cox’s illustrations are full of colour and vitality as they capture the drama of the story.  Brilliant for reading aloud, this is a book to be shared again and again.

Of all TS Eliot’s Practical Cats, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat  is my favourite.  From ‘the whisper down the line…when the Night Mail’s ready to depart’ the rhythm, rhyme, pace and story of the poem draw the reader in to Skimbleshanks’ domain.  Arthur Robins brings the word pictures to life with his spirited, dynamic illustrations (even if he is a little confused about which way is east).  Those who have read the earlier poems in this series will be delighted to spot Macavity and Mr Mistoffelees on board, heading for ‘the northern part of the northern hemisphere’.  I first met Skimbleshanks as a seven-year-old at Troqueer Primary School in Dumfries and loved the poem so much that at one point I could recite the whole thing.  But Skimble is significant for another reason too: for the first time I felt the excitement of reading (albeit very fleetingly) of a place I knew.

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce

I have never grown out of my delight at reading books set in places I know so when I realised that Frank Cottrell Boyce had set his latest book in Dumfries I was ridiculously excited.  In fact I felt it necessary to share my excitement with Catherine at Macmillan Children’s Books!  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.

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.  When his grandfather is taken ill, Prez is sent to live with a family on a farm for the summer and in their care he begins to relax.  But when Sputnik erupts into his life everything 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.

How it all began

I’ve been reading and collecting children’s books ever since I could read.  My parents started me off before I can remember and I’ve just kept on going.  I have very faint memories of going regularly to Thin’s in Edinburgh with my Dad after my sister was born.  We went by bus and the family story goes that we always sat upstairs at the front.  Apparently, it was a big event in my life!

I was introduced to libraries at an early age too.  My vaguest memories are of Portobello Library in Edinburgh.  Lodged at the back of my memory is a book about Angus and a cat.  I think Angus was a dog but neither Mum nor I could ever remember any more than that.  I haven’t been back to Portobello Library since we moved from Edinburgh but I’m sure they no longer have the book.

I have clearer memories of my next library: the Ewart in Dumfries.  I have been back there recently and it’s completely different now but my memories are of a somewhat forbidding place.  I expect the shelves were quite high and of dark wood and I have the idea that the windows were high too.  My clearest memory, though, is of discovering a beautifully illustrated edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  I loved that book and borrowed it incessantly.  In the end, my parents bought me my own copy.  I still have it and I can still recite many of the poems!

My last childhood library was in Lossiemouth in Moray.  It was the first library I went to on my own.  It was at the far end of the (fairly long) street on which we lived and I would often go there after school.  I have pretty clear memories of Lossiemouth Library and some of the books I found there.  It was there that I first stumbled across some book prize called the Carnegie Medal.  I saw an impression of the medal on the front cover of The Edge of the Cloud by KM Peyton and thought that it looked very impressive.  Later it dawned on me that the prize had also been won by Arthur Ransome for Pigeon Post, a book I’d read earlier in my life.

That’s how it all started.  So it seems that my parents and public libraries are to blame for my bowing bookshelves and creaking floorboards.  My parents continued to buy me books all their lives (and I inherited many of theirs) and scarcely a week has gone past without my visiting a library.  I’ve never lost my enjoyment of children’s books and I don’t expect I ever will – although I may be forced to stop collecting them unless I buy a bigger house!