Great books for great readers

National Poetry Day – hearing ‘Aragorn’ read TS Eliot

Since today is National Poetry Day, I thought it would be good to write a post on … well, poetry, of course. And while this blog is mainly dedicated to children’s literature, I thought I would share with you my experience of an amazing event at the British Library last month.

This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Eliot’s death and a series of events, lectures and articles were planned to celebrate this. On September 11, I heard and saw actor, poet, painter and photographer Viggo Mortensen (of ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame) read TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’ at the British Library. Opportunities like this are few and far between and the event was quickly sold out, so I was lucky to get a ticket.

Photo courtesy of the British Library

I’ve always found Eliot a difficult poet … and for good reason. His works are full of allusions to classical literature and religion, amongst other things, and he aimed for obscurity in his oeuvre, wanting to make his reader work. His biographer Robert Crawford notes:

“Fifty years later, “difficult” remains the word most people attach to his verse. Yet we quote him: “Not with a bang but a whimper”, the last line of Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” is among the best-known lines of modern poetry. “April is the cruellest month” begins The Waste Land with unsettling memorability; no reader forgets the strangeness of the “patient etherised upon a table” at the start of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.” (quoted in

I first came across Eliot, properly, during my second BA with the Open University, when we studied ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’. I struggled to understand the symbolism, allusions… everything … and ended up greatly disliking the poem. What turned it around for me was hearing British comedian Robert Webb read the poem and explain what it meant to him, as part of a BBC programme. Suddenly I wasn’t just looking at the words and trying to analyse them, bit by bit. I was hearing the overall story, listening to the sounds, and enjoying the rhythm – which, for me, is what poetry is about. A kind of spoken song, a prayer to what is important to the writer.

I was similar affected when I listened to Viggo Mortensen read ‘The Wasteland’ to the sold-out audience of poetry lovers and, I assume, Viggo-lovers. He arrived at the podium quietly and spoke quietly about how he had chosen the British Library event over other invitations on September 11th because ‘The Wasteland’ is as appropriate now as when it was written after the Second World War.

On the train down to the event, I reminded myself of the poem and struggled, once again, with its story, becoming lost in my attempts to understand and analyse. Hearing Viggo read it, I concentrated more on the words and rhythm, the fluidity and rise and fall. To our delight, he read all the foreign language parts (eg German, Italian, Latin and Cockney!) with impeccable accents and even sang certain sections. This was Eliot as I had never heard him and, as with Robert Webb, I was entranced. Eliot ceased to be so intellectual, a poetic encyclopaedia, if you like, and became a poet. There are two particular lines that for some reason resonate with me and have done since I first read the piece:

‘I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.’
I think about them, what they mean, and why they are important to me. I can’t explain it … yet.
If poetry has always been a bit of a turn-off for you, I urge you to listen to it. Find it on the internet, or better still, go to a reading and live the experience. I think it’s similar to reading Shakespeare – it’s hard to appreciate its beauty fully in the written word. And on that final note, here’s a link to a reading of one of Eliot’s children’s poems – ‘Macavity the Mystery Cat’:
Enjoy and Happy National Poetry Day!
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Review of Tree, by Britta Teckentrup and Patricia Hegarty

I love children’s books, I love nature, and I love trees. So when Little Tiger Kids sent me a review copy of Britta Teckentrup’s and Patricia Hegarty’s new book Tree, I couldn’t have been more delighted.

As the days are getting shorter and the temperatures very, very cooler, it’s a good time to talk about changing seasons with children. Tree does this effectively through a year in the life of a forest tree, explained through Hegarty’s poetic rhyming couplets and Teckentrup’s vivid illustrations. The books begins in winter, as the tree and forest are ‘gripped by winter’s icy chill’. A solitary owl peeps through a cut-out hole in the right-hand page ‘watching in his tree/ no one sees as much as he’.

As the book progresses, so do the seasons. Winter merges into spring, spring into summer, etc, and not only do the illustrations reflect this, but the cut-out holes increase to show bear cubs playing, squirrels scampering, birds singing and bees humming. Suddenly, the tree is no longer the solitary figure it was during winter but a home and a host to all forms of wildlife, attracted by its glorious colours. And still the owl observes from his hollow. When the riotous activity of summer begins to wane, the colours are muted. The holes decrease until even the owl takes his leave when ‘All the forest has gone to sleep’ until ‘the first new buds appear / And so begins another year’.

This cycle of events shows children how the different seasons vary, what happens in the natural world at each time and things they can look out for too. The hard cover of the book feels like wood itself and the pages have a satisfying heavy quality to them. The matt effect means the reader is drawn into the story and doesn’t have to battle in bright light conditions – it just all feels and looks natural and beautiful.

The combination of Hegarty’s poetry and Teckentrup’s artwork is a winner. Children will be entranced by this book and the endless animals, flowers, colours, etc, lurking in the drawings, while adults will appreciate the artistry. This would make a lovely present for any nature lover … or any child.

Please note that while I was sent a review copy of Tree I was under no obligation to review it.

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Griselda Heppel visits Childtastic Books!

Tonight I am delighted to include a guest blog on Childtastic Books from Griselda Heppel, whose Ante’s Inferno was the Children’s Winner of the People’s Book Prize 2012/2013, and was Silver Winner in the Wishing Shelf Book Awards 2013. Holly and I enjoyed Griselda’s first book and were excited to hear that she has just published her second (details of which are below).

Griselda has a particular talent for combining the old and the new. Her fascination with reinventing old and arguably adult tales for younger readers is admirable – as you will read below, she doesn’t let this huge task daunt her, nor does she allow Doubting Thomases to put her off. Writers are often advised to write what they know and Griselda follows this confidently and with such enthusiasm that readers cannot help but be enthused too.

So I’ll hand you over to Griselda now … please extend her one of your lovely, warm Childtastic welcomes! – Sam

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for   MATADOR
Yippee – one of my favourite websites for discussing children’s literature has asked me to do a guest blog. Thank you, Sam, for inviting me to burble about the ideas that excite me, and in particular, the ones behind my new book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst – a reworking of the Faust story for age 11+.
Dr Faustus in a Magic Circle, frontispiece of Gent's translation of 'Dr Faustus', published 1648 (woodcut) by English School woodcut Private Collection The Stapleton Collection English, out of copyright

Dr Faustus in a Magic Circle, frontispiece of Gent’s translation of ‘Dr Faustus’, published 1648 (woodcut) by English School woodcut
Private Collection, The Stapleton Collection
English, out of copyright

I love sharing great legends with children. My first book, Ante’s Inferno (Troubador, 2012) was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, recasting Dante as 12 year-old Ante (Antonia) and sending her on a dark journey through the classical underworld to the bottom of Hell. Now, it’s the turn of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus – the man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for great knowledge and power. How to adapt that for young readers?

I know what you’re thinking. Why would you, er, want to? The legend of Doctor Faustus… surely that’s a theme for adults, too difficult for children to understand?

My reply would be – don’t underestimate young people. When I sent Ante’s Inferno out to agents and publishers, I was told that children wouldn’t be able to cope with the combination of Dante’s view of Hell, Greek mythology and the First World War (an important theme in the story). Having tried it out on 40 or so 9 – 13 year-olds already, I knew they were wrong. As long as the characters are strong, the plot gripping and the structure sound, children have no problem absorbing the different elements and enjoying how they all weave together to make an exciting story. When Ante’s Inferno won the People’s Book Prize – a prize judged entirely by readers’ votes – I felt truly vindicated.

The key is not to rewrite Dante but to imagine what kind of crisis would set a young person on a journey through hell. Similarly, for my current book, the question was, what would drive a 13 year-old to make a pact with a demon? I didn’t think great knowledge would have much allure. But power was another matter. Not superhuman power, necessarily; just enough to give you control over your own life would do. What if your problems were so overwhelming no one could help you?  If you happened upon instructions in an old book on how to summon a spirit to your aid… well, wouldn’t you give it a go?

Henry Fowst began to form in my mind; a geeky, unconfident 13 year-old who feels out of place among the better-off kids around him. Keen to win the prize money for a school essay competition, he makes a mistake that plunges him into a mess he can see no way out of… until, one day in the school’s Elizabethan library, he discovers a diary written in 1586 by a boy his own age, John Striven, who turns out to have problems uncannily similar to Henry’s. Reading the diary, Henry is drawn into John’s life and when John finds the perfect solution to his difficulties, Henry can’t resist following suit.

Unfortunately, calling up Mephistopheles lands both boys in deeper trouble than they ever bargained for…

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst £7.99 pb and £12.99 hb. Out 28th August.

Ante’s Inferno £6.99 pb, £9.99 hb.

From bookshops, online and

Ante thumbnail

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Bodleian Children’s Books – new imprint, lovely books

Just as I am getting back into the swing of reviewing children’s books, two beautiful titles came my way and I am delighted to give them space on Childtastic Books.

The Bodleian Library in Oxford has just launched a new imprint – Bodleian Children’s Books – with the aim of finding and republishing classic children’s books as well as publishing newly commissioned books. The two titles it has chosen to launch the imprint in September 2015 are Penguin’s Way and Whale’s Way, both written US author Johanna Johnston and illustrated by Caldecott Prize winner Leonard Weisgard.


The two books share a similar illustrative style and narrative. Johanna Johnston’s text is informative yet poetic. Take, for example, this short paragraph from Penguin’s Way:

They begin to choose partners. Two by two, they stand near each other and sing. They sing strange, echoing songs of love.’

and this, from Whale’s Way:

‘But the cows and their calves are rocked gently in the cradle of the water.’

These are both non-fiction books but the information is conveyed in a way that reads like a story, with an arc that is particularly evident in Penguin’s Way which covers a year in the life of an emperor penguin. I can imagine reading these to lovers of both fiction and non-fiction and can’t wait to introduce them to the children in my school library.

Weisgard’s drawings are beautiful and captivating, combining sponge-like backgrounds with sharp lines and colours. These books would look equally good on a coffee table as in a child’s book case but, unlike many coffee-table books, they aren’t just pleasing to the eye; the words are soothing and beautiful. As an avid avoider of nature programmes (I can’t bear seeing animals tear each other apart), this is a lovely alternative and these books are, I am sure, set to become classics once again.

Bodleian Children’s Books is not aiming to become a major player in children’s publishing, with a modest proposal to publish at least two titles per season. But the quality of the books on their list means that they deserve to make a good impression on the market.

Please note that while I was sent copies of the books to review, my opinion is entirely unbiased.


It’s been a while…

Hello readers,

I am so sorry that it has taken me such a long time to post on here. I think my last post was in May, which is the longest I have gone without saying anything. But I have, I hope, a valid excuse.

Yesterday I posted off two spiral-bound copies of my dissertation, and therefore completed my last piece of work for my MA in Children’s Literature with Roehampton University. It was the culmination of three years’ study and I must admit that, even though I spent the best part of a year preparing for and writing it, I found it as exhausting as my undergraduate Finals at Oxford nearly 20 years ago.

The cover page for my story...

The cover page for my story…

I chose to do the Creative Dissertation, rather than the Academic Dissertation, which involves writing a piece of work aimed at a child or young adult audience. It had to be 15,000 words long and accompanied by a critical self-analysis of my own work, linking it to the world of children’s literature.

My piece of work was a long short story called Beyond the Grave, a ghost story based on the Victorian and Gothic traditions. At first I wrote it for middle range readers – those who are confident readers but not yet stepping into young adult fiction. However, after around 20 versions (and nearly as many nervous breakdowns! ;-) ) it progressed into something quite different and became, I believe, more of a young adult piece.

While I have had many sleepless nights, I really enjoyed writing the longest piece of continuous prose I have ever attempted. The work won’t stop there either – I want to develop the story into something longer – a complete novel or at least a novella. I will work to do this once some time has passed as I feel the need to regain my sanity. In the meantime, I really hope I pass the MA!

From now on I will be posting more regularly on here and take up where I left off. Thanks for your patience and I hope you’re all enjoying the summer!



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