My Lockdown Books: One

Around half of the books I own in hard copy (so about 1000) were published for children and teenagers.  They’re an odd mixture of the books I seriously collect, books from my own childhood, books I’ve been sent to review and contemporary children’s books I’ve come across either personally or professionally.  The one thing they all have in common is that I like them!  Lack of  bookshelf space (and however much space I had, there wouldn’t be enough) means that I have to choose carefully what I will keep and I do have periodic clear-outs.

The ongoing self-isolation situation has curtailed my work somewhat.  Very few publishers are able to send out review copies and authors are not looking for help with tours!  So I thought I’d indulge myself and share a book a day from my collection.  It’ll be a random selection.  I’m not planning this out; I’m just going to choose one book each day.

My first choice is Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes.  As you can tell from the image, I received a proof of this and I went on to select it for my round-up in The Scotsman.  It’s the first novel that Shirley, who is of course best known for her picture books and illustrations, wrote for older readers.  When working as a young people’s librarian I’d recommend it to upper primary and lower secondary kids.

The book is set in Florence in 1944 during the German occupation of the city.  It’s an aspect of the Second World War that I knew very little about when I first read the book so I found that interesting and Shirley Hughes’ characters engaging.  I’ve always enjoyed novels with a wartime setting or backdrop.  I think it’s the element of society standing together against a common enemy.  Perhaps, then, it’s an appropriate choice for just now.

The Blog’s Name

I expect that some of you recognise the allusion in the title of my blog.  It’s to Lewis Carroll, of course, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

       ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’

I’ve always liked this quote and I do agree with Alice.  I think she’s right both literally and metaphorically.

Judging for the Kate Greenaway Medal opened a whole new world of books for me.  Up until then I hadn’t paid all that much attention to picture books.  I’d bought them for the library and occasionally for the children of friends but I hadn’t really studied them.  Some of my fellow judges were real experts on the subject and I learnt so much from them about how illustration (not just in picture books but in any book) enhances the reading experience.  I love the way the words and pictures in a book can tell different stories as in Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell.  And I am enchanted by the 1920s’ style used by Shirley Hughes in Ella’s Big Chance.

My enjoyment of a novel is definitely affected by the dialogue.  I don’t necessarily like a novel because it has lots of conversations but I do struggle if there are few.  I think that the reader learns so much about characters from the conversations they have and is more easily drawn into their world.  The opening lines of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women is a classic case in point.

But the ‘pictures and conversations’ thing is true too metaphorically.  Good books paint pictures in the mind.  As a child, I was steeped in the Chalet School books of Elinor Brent-Dyer, especially those set in Austria.  I was in my late twenties before I ever went to the Achensee, the real-life setting of the early books in the series, but I had a remarkably accurate idea of what the lake and its surrounding villages looked like.  Equally, I have never visited Vienna but, having read The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson, I feel as though I have!  I can see, too, Anne Shirley cracking her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head in the Avonlea school (and I could before ever I saw either the BBC’s excellent adaptation of LM Montgomery’s book or Kevin Sullivan’s equally brilliant offering).

And a book with any lasting impact will always engage me in a debate – often with myself but sometimes with others!  It might be about the plot or characters or it could cause me to ponder the themes and issues raised.  One such book was The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird which had a huge impact on me when I first read it.  Set in modern Ethiopia, it contrasts (but, oh, so subtly) the lives of two boys from opposite ends of the social scale.  It stayed in my head for ages afterwards.  I’ve even been known to debate books with their authors.  As a teenager, I wrote to Joan Lingard (and received a reply) to remonstrate with her about the way she ended her Maggie quartet.  And whenever I see Linda Newbery I try, with no real hope of success, to persuade her to write a sequel to the excellent Sisterland  because I so much want to know what happens to all the characters.

So, yes, for me there is no use of a book without pictures and conversations.