Posted in general and welcome

If you go down to the woods today…

… you might meet the Minpins!

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Today I am delighted to be reviewing the latest edition of The Minpins, called Billy and the Minpins, illustrated by Quentin Blake and published by Penguin.

I was surprised to discover that The Minpins was Roald Dahl’s last book for children – somehow this fact eluded me until, well, today when I read an interview in the Guardian with Quentin Blake. As part of a dynamic publishing duo with the ever-popular Dahl, this was one book that Blake did not illustrate on first publication – the honour went to Patrick Benson (at the time, Blake was illustrating another of Dahl’s books – Esio Trot).

When Blake was asked to illustrate this new version of The Minpins, he was understandably reluctant, not wanting to tread on another illustrator’s toes. His publisher – Penguin Random House – reassured him that it was to fit in with other books in the Dahl series: Benson’s version had amazing images that could not be scaled down in size to fit in a pocket. So, in 2015, Blake agreed to take on the challenge and what we now have is a beautiful, sympathetic and, in Blake’s inimitably comic style, fascinating reimagining of the original tale.

What the book’s about

Like many fairytale characters that have preceded him, Billy is constantly warned by his mother NOT to go into the woods because, therein, lie dangers such as Whangdoodles, Hornswogglers, Snozzwanglers and Vermicious Knids’. (Yes, you might very well recognise some of these monster names from other Dahl books!) So worried is Billy’s mum, that she does her ironing in the kitchen, while administering occasional reminders of what not to do and asking her son where he is and what he’s doing. Of course, anything forbidden acts like a charm on human curiosity, and Billy eventually succumbs to his desire to see just what is so bad in the deep, dark woods.

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He doesn’t have to wait long, as he is soon terrified by the Gruncher – a monster that has fire inside his belly and who exhales so much smoke that he can’t see in front of him (luckily – or perhaps not – his sense of smell is so acute that he can track his prey with his nose). Billy climbs a tree to escape and stumbles upon a colony of Minpins – tiny people dressed in old-fashioned clothes (Blake says they’re modelled on 17th century garb), who wear suction boots so they can walk wherever they like – and even upside down – on the trees. The leader of the group is Don Mini, who makes it his business to try to help Billy return home without being eaten by the wicked Gruncher.

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I loved this book for all the usual reasons why I adore Roald Dahl. In Billy he has created a daring and disobedient child who’s still likeable – who here hasn’t gone against parental warnings to explore the world around them? Billy might get into an awful scrape but he’s also capable of getting out of it when he creates, in the words of Blackadder’s sidekick Baldrick ‘a cunning plan’. Dahl’s trademark talent for creating new and crazy words is ever evident and children will love the mix of fear and excitement, fun and thrills, that are always part of his stories.

Quentin Blake’s illustrations, as usual, are spot-on – I cannot think of a better author/illustrator pairing. While Benson’s original paintings were beautiful and rather epic in their use of colour and ratio, Blake’s leap off the page with life, creating a different side to the typical fairytale world of ominous threat. Blake’s is a world of fast  action and quick thought, his characters quirky and amusing.

This latest release in the Dahl collection is a must-have for any fans. You will not be disappointed!

Note: I was sent a review copy of Billy and the Minpins by the publisher.

 

 

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Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Kitty-Kitty Bang-Bang

I was so excited when I received my mail on Thursday morning.

Inside a padded Jiffy bag was a book I’d been waiting a long time for. Not quite 150 years, but quite a few months.

The book in question was The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter, discovered 150 years after her birth and published on 1 September 2016 by Frederick Warne & Co, part of Penguin Random House Children’s.

Kitty

According to the press release I received, this lost story of Beatrix Potter’s was discovered two years ago by Jo Hanks, a publisher at Penguin Random House Children’s. A literary history about Beatrix Potter had referred to a letter that Potter had sent to her publisher in 1914 with an idea for a story featuring ‘a well-behaved black Kitty cat, who leads rather a double life’. Jo Hanks visited the V&A archives, where many of Potter’s items are stored, and found three manuscripts, a rough colour sketch of the main character and a pencil sketch of Mr Tod, the villain. Potter fully planned to write the story but things kept getting in the way – the First World War, her marriage, sheep farming and various illnesses. So the book lay unpublished.

Until now.

When illustrator Quentin Blake received the manuscript of The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots in 2015 he said he immediately liked the story for its ‘incident and mischief and character’. Blake says while he’s unsure why Potter never got round to illustrating the book, he likes to think that an element of fate comes into the reason why he was chosen: ‘…I have to confess that there are times when I can’t altogether resist the simple fantasy that she was keeping it for me.’

And this is truly a match made in heaven. While I adore Potter’s original artwork for all her other stories, Blake’s interpretation of this story brings to life the cheekiness of the characters and Potter’s dry humour. Kitty, when she is with the kind old lady, is very proper and dignified (she liked to call herself ‘Miss Catherine St Quintin’) and enjoys a spot of flower arranging. However, two ‘very common cats’ Cheesebox and Winkiepeeps know Kitty’s other side – an adventurer who often sports ‘a gentleman’s Norfolk jacket and little fur-lined boots’. She certainly cuts a debonair and feminist appearance in this outfit, her shotgun slung over her shoulder, looking quite the sportswoman, in Blake’s drawing.

However, she’s not particularly adept at using this weapon and inadvertently aims it at everyone around her, her panic and alarm captured hilariously in the pictures.

While Kitty declares that she ‘will mouse instead’, she still has a go at aiming her rifle at anything that moves, including mice, sticks, crows – before she accidentally hits one of two nasty ferrets – John Stoat-Ferret and Slimmy Jimmy, who are poaching rabbits. They are scared off by our old friend Peter Rabbit, wearing his trademark blue coat and menacingly wielding an umbrella. Kitty rather fancies her luck with a rabbit and follows Peter (she won’t shoot him ‘because he was wearing such an elegant jacket’) and ends up falling down into one of Mr Tod’s traps where she remains stuck until we see a cameo appearance by another of Potter’s favourite characters – Miss Tiggy-Winkle.

As in many of Potter’s stories, there is a moral. Poaching is naughty, and Kitty must pay the price for her transgression. This comes in the form of a toe that gets left behind in Mr Tod’s trap. Potter declares that ‘For the rest of her days Kitty was a little lame; but it was an elegant limp; and she found quite enough occupation about the yard catching mice and rats; varied by tea-parties with respectable cats in the village, such as Ribby and Tabitha Twitchit’ (such a marvellous name for a cat!). Kitty no longer associates with the likes of the ‘common’ Cheesebox and Winkiepeeps (the latter used to cover for her when she was out on her nightly escapades as he was a dead ringer for her). No, now Kitty has returned to a more genteel life of frocks and tea pots and seems none the worse for it.

I found this to be the funniest of Potter’s tales that I have read. The independent young Kitty who likes a bit of adventure gives a fresh and welcome alternative to Perrault’s Puss in Boots – just a shame that she was so bad with a rifle! As many of you know who visit my blog, I am rather fond of cats, and make up my own stories about where they wander at night (we had two cats that always lost every collar we put on them within hours of having them – we reckoned the neighbourhood top cat was taking them as trophies_ so this story really appealed. Even though this is a Beatrix Potter tale, I can’t think of a better illustrator than Quentin Blake to capture the movement, the humour and the mischief of the story. Potter’s beautiful illustrations tended to be on the more gentle side, whereas Blake’s perfectly capture the scattiness of Kitty and her actions.

Children will love the adventure and humour of the text and the pictures. I am sure this tale will rapidly become a classic to add to all of Potter’s other creations and I can’t wait to share this with the children back at school.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Children’s for sending me a review copy of this book.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in general and welcome, picture books, poetry

Happy National Poetry Day!

Here in the UK, it’s National Poetry Day (that sort of rhymes, doesn’t it?). As such, Holly and I thought we would do a special post in honour of the occasion.

Recently we were very lucky to receive a package of books from Red Fox, an imprint of Random House publishers. The books in question were a trio of Quentin Blake’s works: Jack and Nancy, Quentin Blake’s ABC, and Nursery Rhyme Book. The latter two are written in rhyme so fit today’s theme perfectly.

A trio of Quentin Blake Books!

The books have been reprinted recently to celebrate Quentin Blake’s 80th birthday this autumn. We were delighted to read these as we are big fans of Mr Blake’s unique style of drawing, having first come to him from Roald Dahl’s stories. However, Blake also is an adept writer in his own right, as the contents of these books show.
In Quentin Blake’s ABC, he takes the reader through the alphabet in rhyming couplets, by covering two letters on each double-page spread:

Holly and I tried to guess what was inside the parcel. Her thoughts were much more imaginative that mine – a Mummy from Egypt was her answer. Mine was a cleverly wrapped upright vacuum cleaner. I thought the clues were in the fact that (a) a mum is opening it and (b) she is surrounded by housework. Maybe I am just cynical!

Crafty kittens

We also liked the page on kittens – this is a frequent occurrence in our house. The leg-waving on the next page is not so common, as none of us are talented in the old head-standing technique. It looks a lot of fun, though!
Moving on to Nursery Rhyme Book, I was pleased to see that Blake had chosen some of the less-well-known rhymes to include in his small anthology, such as “Jack Spratt”, “Dickery Dickery Dare” and “Gregory Griggs” and his 27 wigs. Holly and I had a laugh at that one, and discussed which wig we were most likely to wear.

Holly rather liked the long, flowing red one, whereas I fancied the nautical-themed ship wig.

I also laughed a lot at Goosey, Goosey Gander and Little Betsy Baker (with incredibly thin pigtails) being shaken – very realistic in this picture:

Shaken, not stirred

Finally, we looked at Jack and Nancy, which was Blake’s second published picture book. This story is all about the protagonists names in the title – Jack and Nancy – who live a very happy and comfortable life in a cottage by the sea but long for the sort of adventures the visiting sailors tell them about. One day, their wish is granted, as a violent storm whips them up by the handle of their umbrella and transports them to an island full of parrots.

Dramatic storms in Jack and Nancy – I loved the deep, rich swirls of the clouds against the scratchy illustrations.

Life on the island sounds like a Biblical paradise, with fresh fruit to eat and water to drink, and swimming naked in the sea with the fishes.

Swimming in the nuddy.

However, despite living in their very own Garden of Eden, Jack and Nancy soon realise that it’s home where they are happiest. The trouble is, with no ships in sight for days, will they ever get back?

Holly’s review:

These books were sent free to us from some publishers. Now, these books are being reprinted and we were the first to get a copy*.  They are excellent books and I know because I have read them all. They are for all ages, well apart from the ABC book. I like these books because they are funny. Why? Because of the drawing and the writing. They are all funny. I also like them because of the imagination in them. They can be adventurous not just because of the story but because of the words and rhymes and letters. If you want to read these books look in your local library or online.

* [NB from Sam: we were sent these just before official publication date of 27 September 2012.]

Disclaimer: Although we were given these books by the publisher, the reviews and thoughts are our own.

Posted in Author talk, parents' and adults' corner, popular authors

In vogue: Enid Blyton?

Julia Eccleshare wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian earlier this week about the new look given to the Famous Five on their seventieth birthday. (One wonders if they are still having adventures, producing their bus passes to capture evil criminals.)

In her article, she suggests that Enid Blyton is indeed becoming fashionable again after many years of being pilloried for everything from her writing style to allegations of sexism, classism and racism. The fact that the much-respected illustrator Quentin Blake organised a group of illustrators to produce new versions for the covers of the Famous Five stories suggests that there still exists a lot of love for the amazingly prolific Mrs Blyton, as Julia Eccleshare explains: ‘Quentin Blake, who is the inspiration behind the series, invited fellow illustrators to contribute their artwork and a percentage of royalties from these books will support the House of Illustration.’

 

Image courtesy of Junior Magazine

Encouraging children to read

While the main focus behind Eccleshare’s article was about the new illustrations for the series, she prefaced the feature with the following standfirst: ‘Both Enid Blyton and JK Rowling have proved that if children find a book, series or author they love, they’ll read – regardless of what their parents think about it’. This is certainly true and I think is a fact that we, as adults, need to accept when our children choose their own reading matter. We may grimace at what they pick up – and I have been there and done that with gaudy, pink kitten books offering plasticky necklace freebies – but what matters is that they are reading (admittedly Holly never did read those monstrosites so I was well withing my rights to refuse to buy any more just so she could add to her jewellery collection – though I am guilty of the same crime with women’s mags – I buy them for the free moisturiser or lip gloss than the contents).

Lashings of ginger beer

I grew up with Enid Blyton and devoured her books, particularly enjoying the descriptions of mealtimes. My mouth would water as I read of the sandwiches, cakes and ‘heaps of tomatoes’ and ‘lashings of ginger beer’. Who wouldn’t enjoy reading about them? Plus the children would be allowed to go off on their own – encouraged to do so even by impatient parents who would rather holiday on their own. How fantastic to be so free. I never noticed any blatant sexism or racism or anything else offensive and I grew up in a multicultural society. Admittedly, as an only child I sometimes got annoyed by her stereotyping only children as stupid and selfish but the stories normally overrode that minor objection. 

 

Image courtesy of http://famousfivestyle.wordpress.com/

Adults keep out!

I never knew until my teens that Enid Blyton was so badly thought of. Yes, her language was old-fashioned compared to nowadays, but so is Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare. What surprised me the most were claims that her writing quite simply wasn’t ‘good’ enough. Children’s literature academic David Rudd explains the problem well in his essay ‘In Defence of the Indefensible? Some Grounds for Enid Blyton’s Appeal‘ (published in Children’s Literature, Approached and Territories, edited by J Maybin and Nicola J Watson, Open University). In this he says that Blyton wasn’t seen as being ‘literary’ enough by publishers and social commentators denounced her as favouring the middle class, white, home-county male. The main criticisms seem to come from adult literary critics who condemn her for being being full of cliche, lacking in metaphor and only offering one plot which she rehashes with each story.

‘It’s just a load of nonsense!’

Another criticism by adults about her books is that she is poor at characterisation – that Blyton’s protagonists are only used to drive forward the plot, are unmemorable and lack any real depth. This seems totally insane to me – the fact that so many of us can remember The Famous Five, for example, is proof that she created strong characters. And George – the tomboy who didn’t want to be treated as a girl – can very much be seen as a reaction against the ideal feminine figure of the time: hardly sexist! But am I just old-fashioned myself? I put these criticisms of Blyton’s writing to Holly, who replied in outrage: ‘It’s just a lot of nonsense that some stupid people made up. Why would I read these books if they were so bad?’

Double standards

And even if Blyton’s characters don’t develop personally, why is this an issue? They are sort of stuck in a time zone where adventures can be scary but fun, adults aren’t required, food is delicious and farmers’ wives are very generous with free milk and eggs. Rudd says: ‘It is their dependability that appeals, just like the figures of the old Greek romances’. In some ways, they are similar to characters we watch nowadays in sitcoms. We don’t turn on a comedy hoping for a character to learn from their mistakes or become a better person. Take Seinfeld, for example, where the four main characters never develop, never change, never show moral growth. Their static character is what makes them funny and attractive and human and draws us back to view them time and again.

With regard accusations of formulaic plotting, critics tend dismiss Blyton’s works as full of ‘contrivances’. Rudd reveals – interestingly but disappointingly – that these are ‘exactly the sort of devices that we find in such canonical writers as Dickens or Hardy…’ yet Blyton is condemned for the very practices that these  male writers are praised for. So where is the sexism now?

Leave it to the kids

I’ve written before about the paradox of writing children’s literature: how can an adult know what a child wants to read? It’s not an easily answered question but there can be no doubt, as Julia Eccleshare points out, that writers such as Enid Blyton and JK Rowling have this gift. So maybe the best thing we can do as adults is to leave children to enjoy the stories rather than look for weaknesses and faults from our own perspectives. Rudd sums it up well when he says that ‘Blyton is seen as inadequate only if she’s judged according to the fairly narrow (and recent) strictures of literary criticism’.

Admittedly, I have often stifled a smile at something that sounded archaic or just odd to my adult ears but these books were what drove me to read when I was young and what encouraged Holly to devour stories after being bored with the school phonics books. Rudd thinks that The Famous Five is so particularly popular with children because ‘it perfectly captures…being on holiday not just literally but psychologically, too, escaping from school and parental influence…’ As children are growing up too quickly nowadays as it is this surely can’t be a bad thing.

Amazing Enid Blyton Facts!

She sells around 11 million copies of books a year, perhaps the only children’s author to rival JK Rowling.

As well as being a writer, she was an educationalist.

In the early 1950s, she was writing around 50 titles a year. In 1955 she wrote 70.

May 12 was Enid Blyton Day

She was an accomplished pianist before giving it up to train to be a teacher

Later in life she was afflicted by Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

Enid Blyton with her daughters. Image courtesy of the Daily Telegraph.

Posted in humour

Review: Danny the Champion of the World

  

Title: Danny the Champion of the World

Author: Roald Dahl

Illustrator: Quentin Blake

Publisher: Puffin

What it’s about: By today’s standards, Danny and his father live in poverty in a gypsy caravan, running a small petrol station, but to Danny it is a wonderful existence. He adores his father, who has raised him since his mother died when he was only four months old. However, just before his ninth birthday, Danny discovers that his dad has a rather naughty secret and that a nasty landowner, Victor Hazell, is plotting to get rid of them. It’s up to Danny to come up with a plan that will restore their peace and happiness.

Holly’s review: This book is more serious than other Roald Dahl stories, which tend to be jolly. But I like it as much as them. Danny and his dad love each other very much. It’s sad that the mum died but good that they have a very close relationship. The story is unusual because normally Roald Dahl’s men are lazy characters – and I would have expected him to be a lazy widower who lives in an apartment or house, not a nice man in a caravan. I like Quentin Blake’s illustrations. It looks like he has sketched them and they have a messy appearance but not so much that you can’t understand what’s going on. For example, trees don’t have to be neat and tidy.

Sam’s review:  I had the same reaction to Holly when I read Danny years and years ago – that it was a relatively seriously book compared to the sometimes manic and bizarre storylines of other novels such as The BFG, Mathilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was unsettling at first but I think as Holly says it’s just a different type of book. There are still moments of comedy – Victor Hazell, as with all of Dahl’s villains – is hilariously described (and drawn by Blake). The relationship between Danny and his dad is very moving and gives a nice example of how parents can actually be close to their children (rather than beastly or inept or stupid!). It’s more of a book that you cuddle up with and enjoy as parent and child than roll around laughing but that is no bad thing nowadays, when it’s becoming rarer for this to happen.

Link to Roald Dahl’s website: http://www.roalddahl.com/