Great books for great readers

Forever – a book you can finish in a day

The latest instalment in the Popsugar Reading Challenge is A Book You Can Finish in a Day. My choice for this was Judy Blume’s Forever.,204,203,200_.jpg

When I was a pre-teen, I rapidly read my way through all of Judy Blume’s books but this one passed me by. Probably just as well as I would have been a little too young for its contents, which I think are more suited for girls aged 14+ (although a quick look on the internet shows that others my age who read Forever did so when they were 13, with copies hidden under pillows, away from parental discovery).

Forever has courted controversy every since it was first published in 1975, as it deals, frankly, with teenage sexuality generally and, more specifically, with a young woman’s first sexual encounter. There is not much plot beyond what happens between Katherine and her boyfriend Michael as their relationship develops from simple dating to a full-blown physical relationship – but that is the exact point of  the novel. It takes an honest approach to showing how a responsible young adult approaches sex, and Katherine is a good role model for girls in this respect – she doesn’t allow her boyfriend Michael to pressure her into anything she’s not comfortable with. She also takes responsibility for her contraceptive choices, travelling into New York to attend a special sexual health clinic for teenagers. Katherine is an empowered female making important decisions about her own body, away from parental concerns and peer pressure. Katherine’s body is her own and she doesn’t need permission from anybody about what she should do with it.

Additionally, her parents are pretty cool about boyfriends, and she has a very modern grandmother, who sends her leaflets on safe sex in the post (bear in mind, again, that this was the mid-1970s). This shows a forward-thinking family, who don’t try to scare a girl into celibacy or making her feel bad or disgusting for having sexual thoughts and needs. Blume stated that, growing up in the 1950s, she was told that there were two groups of girls – nice and naughty. No prizes for guessing which girls were the ones who participated in, and enjoyed, sex…

In a country that still has difficulty with teenage sexual emancipation, this book has constantly faced the censors’ wrath. Not only does it show sex as a normal, natural thing for teens to want to engage in, she shows how they can take responsibility for their own bodies, without deferring to parental permission. Schools and public libraries in some areas of the USA have fought to have Forever banned because of its honest look at sexuality (including an early portrayal of a boy’s struggle with latent homosexuality). Blume first published the book during the sexual revolution of the Seventies, which explains the enlightened attitudes of Katherine’s mother and grandmother. One might imagine, or expect, that things would have moved on since then but Blume thinks otherwise, stating that religious fundamentalism has grown in power since the 1980s, as she revealed in an interview in the Guardian:

“The 70s was a much more open decade in America… Forever was used in several school programmes then, helping to spur discussions of sexual responsibility. This would never happen today. How are young people supposed to make thoughtful decisions if they don’t have information and no one is willing to talk with them? Girls and boys have to learn to say ‘no’ or ‘not without a condom’ without fear. I hear from too many young people who give in because they’re afraid if they don’t, their partner will find someone else.”

Interestingly, Forever doesn’t seem to have dated much and that is because the issues central to the story are perennial teenage concerns. And Judy Blume has a gift for portraying these sensitively, in a voice that her readers immediately identify with. She is informative yet reassuring, like the cool aunt you want to share your problems with, who you know will understand what you’re feeling and who won’t judge you.

Forever isn’t a long book which is why I got through it so quickly. But I think it’s a very important novel for girls in particular – from around 14 years upwards. It’s quite amazing, really, that this book will have informed a generation of females (my generation) in the 1970s and 1980s, and that it is still relevant to their children nowadays, and probably beyond.

Have you read any Judy Blume books? Which are your favourites?



Winnie the Pooh – a book that is guaranteed to bring joy

The second book of the Popsugar Challenge that I have completed is Winnie the Pooh and I thought I would classify it as my entry for ‘A Book That is Guaranteed to Bring You Joy’.

The last time I read this book, or at least part of it, must have been with Holly. However, I have stronger memories of hearing Alan Bennett’s soothing voice narrating it, as it was Holly’s favourite audiobook to fall asleep to. At the time, I could almost time it when Jane Horrock’s squealy Piglet would erupt, always surprising me despite its familiarity.

As soon as I embarked on it, I was back in the Hundred Acres Wood and could envisage the animals as they trundled from one adventure to the next. One of my favourite episodes must be when Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s doorway because he’s eaten too much. His top half hangs outside, while his bottom half comes in handy as a towel airer for Rabbit. Sensible Christopher Robin knows what must be done – ‘We shall have to wait for you to get thin again’. To Pooh’s dismay, he must diet for a week until his body is slender enough to be pulled, rather undignifiedly, out. Anyone who has ever got stuck in a pair of jeans will sympathise with his predicament, I am sure. Ahem.

And the time when Pooh and Piglet walk in circles hunting a Woozle always elicits more than a chuckle as the two are convinced that more Woozles and possible a Wizzle are now following them, totally unaware that they’re creating the prints themselves.

Equally delightful are Pooh’s spontaneous yet still thoughtful poems. We have ‘The Anxious Pooh Song’ in which the worried animal becomes a hero through an act of bravery (saving Piglet from the floods), and ‘Sing Ho! For the Life of a Bear!’ in which Pooh teaches all of us about how to find joy in the simplest of things (for him, it’s having lots of honey in his house and on his nice clean paws). ‘Cottleston Pie’ is another favourite – a beautiful train-like rhythm running through it.

AA Milne’s interesting use of initial capital letters on words was fascinating to rediscover, having seen it frequently nowadays in children’s books and comedic writing to suggest irony or humorous emphasis:

‘As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an Adventure was going to happen… and he spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.’

And of course who could not love the title ‘A Bear of Very Little Brain’? (Even though I disagree with this statement!)

When I told the children at school that it would have been AA Milne’s 134th birthday on 18 January they were amazed at the age, and intrigued about how to pronounce Milne. However, many children (particularly boys) were very grumpy about me reading from Winnie the Pooh, declaring a vehement hatred for the bear. I nearly fainted, of course. Who could not love this gentle creature?

Upon further discussion it appeared that many had been subjected to endless reruns of Disney’s version of the books, of short episodes on terrestrial television which are rather saccarine. They hadn’t read the original story, or had it read to them, so they were unfamiliar with Milne’s gently comedic style.

Interestingly, I discovered their distate was due to their age. Having just ‘graduated’ from quite simple picture books, they thought I was insulting their intelligence by showing them a ‘baby’ book. Some of them used the word ‘baby’ to describe the average reader while others said Pooh Bear was an idiot for doing things like falling into water (I restrained from pointing out that plenty of children did that and worse on a daily basis).

When I read them some of the poems, and got them joining in, they grudgingly showed interest, and when I talked to them about Pooh’s and Piglet’s quest to find a Woozle (and possibly a Wizzle) they were desperate to hear the outcome (by this time, the session had finished and they were left on a cliffhanger – we would have had time to finish had they not moaned so much about listening to the stories in the first place!).

I hope I have helped them reconsider their opinions on one of the world’s most-loved bears. I enjoyed the book so much that I have purchased the second book – The House at Pooh Corner. If you are looking for a book that will bring you joy, I can hardly recommend a better one. Even writing this makes me smile. :-)

Have you read Winnie the Pooh? What are your thoughts?

What book would YOU choose that would be guaranteed to bring you joy?




Happy Birthday AA Milne!

Goodness, another birthday. This time it’s AA Milne’s 134th birthday (if he were still alive, obviously). And we all know what AA Milne’s fame comes from – the wonderful stories of Winnie the Pooh.

I’m currently reading the first book of Pooh’s adventures as part of the Popsugar challenge, and am enjoying it greatly. As well as finding comfort again in the One Hundred Acre Wood,  I am noticing things that I never did before, such as how the different characters personify different personalities – Winnie is quite forgetful but pleasantly meditative, Piglet is funny but rather highly-strung, Rabbit can be caustic, Owl (Wol) is wise but recognises his weaknesses (spelling is a huge one).

I’ll write more about this when I summarise the book as part of the reading challenge but I couldn’t let Milne’s birthday go unnoticed. So, thanks to the Western Morning News, here is a list of great Pooh-Bear quotes, which shows he was quite the philosopher as well as a bear who just loved hunny (I rather like number 3!):

1. Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.

2. You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

3. It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”

4. I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

5. People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

6. Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

7. “Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

8. I used to believe in forever, but forever’s too good to be true.

9. I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.

10. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.




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Happy Birthday, Charles Perrault!

Anyone who’s visited Google’s page today will have seen that they have dedicated their Doodle to Charles Perrault, the oft-cited father of the modern fairy tale. Had he been a character in his own fairy tale, he might be celebrating his 388th birthday. However, he was a real person and subject to nature’s laws so we have to make do with remembering his life instead.

Charles Perrault

While many people may have heard of Charles Perrault, his name is not necessarily the first that springs to mind when you talk about fairy tales. Instead, that honour goes to the Brothers Grimm, who came around 200 years later and who used Perrault’s texts, including popular tales as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Blue Beard and Sleeping Beauty as a basis for their own. Perrault wasn’t the author of those tales – they were circulating orally before his time – but he did set them down on paper for readers to enjoy.

Be warned, though: his version of these classic tales are not the sanitised stories we read today. Fairy tales came into existence to entertain and also to instruct – the gruesome fates that often befell the main protagonists were warnings for the unwary. Alongside their parents, children would have listened to tales that probably would be rated 18+ at the cinema nowadays. The wolf in Red Riding Hood, for example, is a man who targets little girls wandering alone in the woods against their mothers’ permission, while unknowing Sleeping Beauty shares her bed with a series of men who take advantage of her sleeping sickness.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the sordid nature of the tales, they were fantastically popular and were translated into English for our ancestors’ enjoyment. Still, I can’t imagine reading his versions to any of the young children I work with now without being fired from my job!

If you can track down the originals, it’s well worth it to see how a fairy tale can change with the passage of time, particularly when critics say that nowadays children are becoming desensitised to violence. The fact that Perrault’s brutal retellings of popular tales can shock us in 2016 shows that perhaps we’re made of more sensitive stuff than our ancestors.

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Mockingjay – my YA bestseller choice

I’ve started the Popsugar Reading Challenge with Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay, which falls under the YA Bestseller category.

Warning: I will be including spoilers so you might not want to read on!

I’ll begin by saying this wasn’t a book I was ever planning on reading, even though I’d read The Hunger Games, the first book in this popular trilogy, several years ago and was hooked by everything about it. I loved Katniss’s independence, her fiery nature and her flaws too. What a heroine! She’s cool, a skilled archer, and is no one’s fool. However, while I devoured the book in a matter of a few days, I felt emotionally exhausted by the end. The usual rules for writing suspenseful stories recommend that readers get a breather amongst the tension but Collins, somehow, managed to keep anxiety levels sky-high. It was almost unbearable. I don’t think I have ever read anything as tense before or since.

Soon after fininshing The Hunger Games, I had a quick peep at the second story – Catching Fire. After reading the first few chapters and learning that Katniss would, again, be returned to the Hunger Games arena, I felt I couldn’t put myself through that again and abandoned the book. However, after watching the film versions of the first and second books over Christmas, I decided I needed to know the outcome.

Mockingjay concerns itself with the rebel onslaught on the Capitol, after Katniss’s continued defiance of President Snow has inspired citizens of Panem to take up arms. After being rescued from the Hunger Games arena by Games Maker Plutarch Heavensbee and her mentory Haymitch, she struggles to come to terms with her ally and friend Peeta’s capture by Snow and the announcement that Alma Coin, leader of District 13 and of the rebellion, wants her to become the Mockingjay – the symbol of the revolution. Katniss discovers that this was the plan all along – that half of the ‘tributes’ who fought with her in the Arena knew this and made it their job to ensure she escaped. The question is not will she take up the role but how can she not, with her family, Gale and friends relying on her to provide the inspiration needed to overthrow Snow’s dictatorship.

I enjoyed reading Mockingjay but I didn’t feel as involved as I did in The Hunger Games. Katniss was less empowered in this than in the previous two stories, and I am sure that that was Collins’s point. Ironically, with her physical freedom from the Games comes personal constraint: she is constantly at the mercy of Heavensbee’s and Coin’s PR demands. She has to film inspirational ‘propos’ to keep the rebels’ spirits high but she’s initially prevented from fighting alongside the troops to achieve the desired outcome because the side needs her alive so the fighters don’t lose hope. However, as soon as enough victory has been secured, it turns out that Katniss is worth more dead to the side – a martyr will guarantee the Capitol’s total defeat.

The point Collins makes through this is key to the series, I think, and I hope younger readers pick up on it. And this point is that even heroes can be easily created and destroyed, and are thus indispensible. Those in power will use and abuse a person until they are no longer of value, and the media is key in manipulating both the hero(ine) and their supporters. Appearance is key – and this has been a constant theme throughout the series with the Hunger Games, and how a contestant’s image can secure their life or death. Katniss reluctantly engages in this but her most successful moments are when she reacts genuinely rather than according to a script. She never loses that ‘fault’ which  becomes her strength.

However, I feel that Collins let her down a little in Mockingjay. She spent long periods in the hospital which was frustrating. Interestingly, in the films, these episodes were shortened which helped keep her more engaging and less mopey (in the books she is less likeable, especially in Mockingjay, as she veers from one sulk to the next). She can’t make her mind up as to whether she fancies Peeta or Gale, which also becomes tiresome. The debate is never as evident in the films as it is in the books, and this is a benefit to the storyline and the heroine. Both the book and the film are good at showing how Peeta suffered at the hands of Snow, though, and how being ‘hijacked’ poisoned his view of Katniss, almost irredemably.

Many people are split about how the book ends. In brief, the rebels win, though Katniss never makes it through to kill Snow, which was her aim throughout the book. Instead, she is seriously burned in an explosion that kills a huge crowd of children and her medic sister Prim, and which she discovers was caused not by the enemies but her own side in an act of trickery. Katniss is reduced to accepting that she helped lead the rebellion but now she is retired to the position of ex-victor but is guaranteed the job of executing Snow in public.

However, in a final act of defiance and self-determination (thank goodness!) Katniss uses the opportunity to execute Alma Coin, the interim leader of Panem, whom Katniss discovers would merely replace Snow not provide a better alternative (Coin wanted to hold a final Hunger Games with the children of the Capitol to satisfy the rebels’ calls for revenge). She is rushed away, taken back to District 12 with Haymitch and struggles to live with no purpose and no family. Peeta finally returns and the two are finally reunited. We learn that they live together and have children but are never free from the nightmares gained from their experiences. It’s a bittersweet ending – there is happiness but it’s never complete and never will be.

People hated that so many of the main characters died in Mockingjay. This is understandable – when you have invested so much emotion in a person it’s hard when they succumb to a (usually!) horrible death. However, it’s more realistic. It would have been unbelievable (yes, I know this is fiction) for them all to survive and live happily ever after. War isn’t like that. I felt bereft at the end, mainly because the realisation that everything Katniss faught for was as flawed and evil as the regime she was trying to replace was appalling. However, her execution of Coin ensures that a better future is possible, at least, and she ceased being Coin’s Mockingjay.

Fiction is a difficult thing. We demand verisimilitude but get upset when actually we feel more comforted by happiness. I love a happy ending, don’t get me wrong, but I think the ending we got was the right one for the book.

More generally, I think the films did the story better than the books – something that I never normally believe. Apart from the first book, perhaps. The cast was amazing and Jennifer Lawrence made Katniss more likeable and stronger in her portrayal. I am so weary of the adjective ‘dystopian’ now, with regards YA fiction but this is a story that will remain with me forever because it is so relevant to our supposedly not dystopian reality.

What did you think of the Hunger Games trilogy? Do share, please!





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