Great books for great readers

Living with the scars of war

I discovered a new children’s book today at a book fair I was running. It was Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo, beautifully illustrated by Gemma O’Callaghan, and I couldn’t think of a better piece of writing for Remembrance Day.

The blurb on the book says that it is “A poignant tale of the physical and mental scars of war” and I would add that it not only applies to those who return from war but the families and friends who were originally left behind. Morpurgo begins this non-fiction piece with a traumatic dream that he, as a child, used to have.

“This one was always the same. It began with a face, a twisted, tortured face that screamed silently, a face without hair or eyebrows, a skull more than a face, a skull that was covered in puckered, scarred skin stretched over the cheekbones. It was Grandpa’s face and he was staring at me out of his scream. And always the face was on fire, flames licking out of his ears and mouth.”

The dream is based on the reality of what happened to his Grandpa during World War II, who served in the Merchant Navy. While travelling across the Atlantic, his ship was torpedoed and he was severely burned and nearly drowned. He was rescued but the scars that remained with him meant he lived with the events of that night for the rest of his life. Michael, as a boy, was warned by his parents not to stare at his Grandpa because it was impolite. However, Michael admits:

“But every time, sooner or later, I’d do it; I’d sneak a crafty look. And very soon that look became a stare. I was never revolted by what I saw… I saw the suffering he had gone through in his deep blue eyes…”

When Michael was 12 or so, he spent the summer holidays with his Grandpa on the Isles of Scilly. It was then that he heard the whole story, not just of the attack but of the consequences of surviving. While the medical unit treated him and other burn victims with respect “[Dr McIndoe] made us feel right again inside, like we mattered, like we weren’t monster men”, his family struggled to cope with the scars he carried. His wife eventually left him, taking their baby daughter – Michael’s mother – with her: “No one wants a monster for a husband. No one wants half a man, and that’s what I was, Michael, half a man.” The result was that he “lived with that hate inside of me most of my life…”

Michael’s Grandpa admits all this to his grandson because he is the only one who stared at “his forbidden face, his forbidden hands.” And when his Grandpa died, a while later, the goodbye letter he left to his Grandson echoed his appreciation: “Thanks for looking at me like you did.”

Like many of Morpurgo’s books, Half a Man raises pertinent questions about humanity and emotions without becoming overtly moralistic. He relates his Grandpa’s story without striving for pity or shock or outrage and yet somehow the reader feels this on the Grandpa’s behalf. And while the book is aimed at the children’s books market I feel that its message is more aimed at the adults – about the importance of looking at life an people through a child’s untainted eyes. To ditch self-consciousness and prejudice. O’Callaghan’s sensitive illustrations capture the mood well, using colour to evoke mood and emotion.

I am not sure if I would necessarily put this book in my primary school library, and if I did I would target it at the older readers. Some of the information contained within – such the opening nightmare scene and the revelations about how his grandparents’ marriage dissolved – feel too adult for a young audience if there isn’t an older reader there to talk through the issues.

But don’t get me wrong: this is an important book on the fallout of war. No matter who wins, there are always those who suffer, who lose a part of themselves and their life as a result. For Michael’s Grandpa, it was his family and their ability to see him as a man, behind the scars. Things may have changed for the better nowadays – and I really hope this is the case – but we must never forget the everyday battles of those who come back from war. Remembering someone who dies as they once were is traumatic but we can still hold onto an ideal of who they were. Readjusting to those irrevocably changed – physically, emotionally and spiritually – is perhaps even harder.

Michael ends with a simple but powerful statement about his Grandpa, one which applies to all of those who return from war scarred by their experiences:

“…he wasn’t half a man.”

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Kitties galore

Twitter has been full of posts today to celebrate National Cat Day. I’m a sucker for sweet pics of felines doing silly or adorable things, so this ‘celebration’ is right up my street. I was just about to pen a post (I shouldn’t say ‘pen’ should I when I am working on a laptop?) when the Guardian beat me to it with ‘Pip Jones’s Top 10 cats in children’s books’.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking about lovely cats I have met while reading children’s books. There are many on Pip Jones’s list that I agree with: Mog the Forgetful Cat, Six Dinner Sid, The Cat in the Hat, Gobbolino… to name a few. But I can think of a few more that deserve a big mention too, as they played an important part in bedtime stories either when I was young or when we read picture books to Holly ever night. So here are my additions to the list, in no particular order of popularity:

1. Captain’s Purr, by Madeleine Floyd

We love this love story about Captain, the cat who likes to eat, sleep, wash himself and wander out at nighttime to woo his lady friend in a little row boat. It’s magical, romantic and very sweet indeed. Floyd’s watercolour paintings are gorgeous and complement Captain’s gentle gallantry.

2. Wilbur the cat, in the Winnie the Witch series, by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

Long-suffering but fiercely loyal Wilbur must rank as a favourite in children’s books. He’s had all sorts of things done to him – accidentally of course – while Winnie tries her hardest to cast effective spells, but he stays with his human through thick and thin (and worse). Paul’s illustrations bring this wonderful character to life and give him much more of a status than mere sidekick.

3. Huckle, and all of Richard Scarry’s cats

Richard Scarry was – and still is – one of my favourite authors and illustrators and I particularly adored Huckle and the other cats in his work. Scarry gave his characters such… character – a kind of frantic happiness in their features which makes me giggle just to look at them. I am glad to have the series at school now, where they are frequently borrowed.

4. The Owl and the Pussycat, by Edward Lear – illustrated (here) by Lynton Lamb

This is one of my favourite poems, and I love how the marriage between two such disparate animals doesn’t seem strange to me (maybe I am strange). And the cat uses a great verb – tarried – to rhyme with married, which my cats would never say. Kudos to the cat, for marrying a bird (and not slaughtering it like my cat would do) and using fab vocab.

5. Lord Gort, from Blitzcat, by Robert Westall

Robert Westall was a massive cat lover and one of his best books, in my opinion, has a feline as the central character. Lord Gort, a female black cat bizarrely named after a British soldier and commandant, lives a happy life until her male owner is sent to fight in the Second World War. Bereft, she uses ‘psi-tracking’ – a supposedly paranormal ability – to try to track him down, and meets a variety of people along her way, all of whom she somehow helps. Westall doesn’t resort to anthropomorphism in this story but, through Lord Gort’s tenacity, resourcefulness and compassion, we get a good picture of her character and become to know her, care for her and root for her. It’s a harrowing and honest portrayal of the deprivations and horrors of life in WWII Britain but it is rewarding and very moving.

6. William the detective cat in William Heads to Hollywood and William & The Missing Masterpiece, by Helen Hancocks

I fell in love immediately with suave and sophisticated William in Helen Hancocks’s first book featuring the feline detective (Missing Masterpiece) and was delighted when the next book came out this summer (Hollywood). He’s how I imagine some cats to be – clever, debonair and on the prowl for clues. Even if William sometimes misses an important lead, his stylish manner makes him instantly forgivable.

There are more amazing kitties out there. Michael Morpurgo has written some lovely books with cats as central characters, including Adolphus Tips, Kaspar Prince of Cats and Montezuma, all of which are worth a look. It’s great to celebrate cats instead of seeing them as evildoers, especially with Hallowe’en coming up! Although my one of my two kitties – Lily – has a murderous streak and an occasional evil eye.

I’ll end with a sketch Holly drew today for the Royal Academy’s Twitter competition – to sketch a cat in pen. She enjoyed this and I can verify that her attempt was far better, and more skilled, than my own!

Holly's Cat, drawn in pen

Holly’s Cat, drawn in pen

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It’s a small (minute!) world after all…

Microbe is a word that I think I know the meaning of but if you asked me to explain it I would struggle. So I was pleased to read Nicola Davies’s and Emily Sutton’s book Tiny Creatures – The Invisible World of Microbes, which is all about what these mysterious things are.

“…do you know that there are creatures so tiny that millions could fit on [an] ant’s antenna?

So tiny that we’d have to make the ant’s antenna as big as a whale to show them to you?”

That’s pretty tiny.

The book goes on to explain how these miniscule living things come in different shapes and sizes (wiggly, thin, daisy-like, etc) and that, unlike other creatures, they have no legs, arms, eyes and other parts.

They crowd together so compactly that a teaspoon of soil could have as many as a billion microbes, which is “…about the same as the number of people in the whole of India”.

They multiply in number extremely quickly, so it’s not surprising that exposure to just a few can make you very sick, very quick (having just had a nasty cold, I can testify to this!).

I didn’t quite understand how powerful microbes can be. I thought they just sort of existed, but gave no consideration to what they do. According to Nicola Davies, they can “wear down mountains and build up cliffs. They can stain the sea red, turn the sky cloudy, and make snowflakes grow.”

This is pretty impressive stuff for such tiny beings.

I’ve always found science interesting but I’ll freely admit that I get confused sometimes, very easily. However, I came away from Tiny understanding more about microbiology than I did post-GCSE.

(Maybe I shouldn’t admit that.)

Davies and Sutton have created a lively, interesting and beautiful book that is not only informative but interesting. The title is shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2015, and it’s easy to see why. Like Shackleton’s Journey, in my previous review, it takes a narrative non-fiction approach, which helps bring facts to life. Davies gives just the right amount of detail to inform but not overburden the mind, at times even becoming quite poetic.

The drawings are superb – colourful and beautiful. If you’d asked me before I read this book if I’d ever put a picture from a science book on my wall, I’d definitely have said “no”. But Sutton’s illustrations come alive on the paper (thankfully not the germ-ridden ones!) and possess colour and movement, from the city-scape of New York City’s apartment blocks, with intricately drawn people in individual windows, to the sweeping spread of sea and mountains. The attention to detail is astonishing and complements Davies’ skill at taking a difficult subject and breaking it down into (not-quite-microbe) small pieces.

Having always had a much stronger preference for fiction over non-fiction, I am being won over by this new trend of narrative non-fiction. There will always be books with hard facts – and that’s essential – but this merging of styles will go a long way I think to bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction.

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Shackleton’s Journey, a visual masterpiece

I was very excited this week at work.

A very generous parent of one of last year’s school leavers donated £100 to the school library for us to buy new books and they arrived on Monday.

We’re concentrating on boosting good quality non-fiction at present and one book I’ve had my eye on for a long time was Shackleton’s Journey, by William Grill.

Unsurprisingly, this won the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s illustration and William Grill – at a tender 25 years old – became the youngest winner in 25 years.

This has been called a picture book because it’s aimed at children and tells a story in a mixture of words and pictures. But, oh… this is so much more. It’s heaven to the senses – visually, it’s a treat, and the thick paper gives a solidity to the story (I know that sounds odd but I can’t think of any other way to phrase it).

The Daily Telegraph said that this book “may herald a shift in values at the heart of children’s publishing. For a long time it has been thought that publishers serve fiction well, while non-fiction has been dominated by glossy reference books. But we are currently seeing a boom in beautifully illustrated narrative non-fiction” (click here to read more). This is certainly the case, as seen by Jenny Broom’s Animalium and Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski’s Maps and a trip to the bookshop will show plenty of new titles, beautifully illustrated and presented, that wouldn’t look out of place on a coffee table. It did make me wonder who they were aimed at, initially at least – parents or children?  

That said, Shackleton’s Journey met every need I have in a non-fiction book. I found it fascinating to discover that William Grill is dyslexic and that his interest in narrative non-fiction stems from this condition. He told the Telegraph that: “Me being such a bad reader shaped the look of the book: I had to draw everything out and explain it through pictures, to make it as clear as I could.” I learn better visually – a strange fact for a writer and editor and reader! – and this book balances pictures and words so well. And the information it includes is all relevant and digestible. I came away from reading it feeling like I had been on that expedition (complete with a nasty cold – but I cannot blame the book for that!).

I loved the little details such as the 99 dogs (why not 100?) that were sent from Canada and the 69 (why not 70?) that were eventually selected to be taken on the journey. Each were individual drawn and named in the book:

And the vast expanse of ice (and danger) that the men faced when heading into the Weddell Sea is brilliantly captured in this illustration and its amazing perspective:

Would you want to sail into this? (Spot the boat in the bottom left corner.)

I was blown away by the ominous and Gothic beauty in this illustration, which sends shivers into me at the sense of utter isolation Shackleton and his men faced:

In terms of readership, children in the littler age range (say, 3-6 years) might not benefit as much from this as those aged 7+. In fact, the older you are, arguably, the more you can get from this as its strengths are multi-layered. The text gives you the basic info you need on the journey, on Shackleton, and on his men. Yet the pictures (such as the one above) convey more than a factual, more-encyclopaedic book would. Yes, we all know that any journey such as Shackleton’s involves danger, probably life-threatening at times, yet being told it somehow weakens the reality. Grill’s illustrations impart the cold beauty of the expedition, and the fierce reality of man versus nature, as seen in this spread, where Shackleton and two crew members cross South Georgia to seek help:

I loved this book. I will be buying a copy for my home library as it’s not just a book but a work of art. Not just non-fiction but a tapestry of courage, adventure, hardship and success despite the odds.

Please do read this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


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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