Politely Murderous

Cover

I definitely have a thing for black humour. When presented in the innocent oeuvre of children’s books, the delivery is so deadpan, it often reduces me to tears. Following in the vein of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back (see my review here), Daniel Miyares’ Pardon Me! is kiddy macabre at its best.

Pardon Me! ShadowPardon Me! Frog

It’s about a bird, a little yellow bird with a large beak, sitting on what appears to be a rock in the middle of a body of water. He’s happy in his solitude, this bird is. Then along comes a great big stork asking pardon for intruding on the little yellow bird’s reverie to share his rock. After this, a blasé frog leaps into the tableau, settling himself next to the stork. A turtle swims over next. All of these creatures uttering the terribly polite, “Pardon me” as they crowded onto the rock. All the while the yellow bird is growing increasingly irate. Finally, when I fox calls from the shore the same two words followed by a half uttered warning, the yellow bird explodes into a rage. He chases them all off and is left, once more, gloriously alone. However, the fox’s warning is soon dreadfully clear when the head of a crocodile appears in front of his body, which is actually what the bird is sitting on.

Pardon Me! FoxPardon Me! Leave Me Alone!

I can NOT get enough of these exchanged looks of glee and fright portrayed so succinctly on the page.

Pardon Me! Face Off

Yet, it is the final two pages that get me totally rolling on Iris’s bedroom floor.

Pardon Me! BurpPardon Me! Last Page

Quite apart from the beautiful illustrations, the words are FEW. Not only does this mean less work for the reading adult, but with the story being portrayed in part by pictures, like Michael Stephen King’s Leaf (my first ever review), it allows the child to form the story for themselves, filling in the emotions, action, etc. Pardon Me! is definitely going on my Book Depository wish list.

Gothic Charm

Fairytales for Wilde Girls

Inspired by my first YA (young adult) book review, I decided to pop into the YA section at the library. The first book I saw on the “recommendations” table was Allyse Near’s Fairytales for Wilde Girls. I briefly glanced at the synopsis and thought, hey an Honour Book of The Children’s Book Council of Australia’s got to be passable and popped it into the book bag.

The book sat on my bedside table for a week and a half while I finished up Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (very, very good but more for adults). The more I looked at the cover, the more doubts I began to have about it. Was it really something I’d like? Or some soppy pre-pubescent gothic romance with glowing vampires and other such rubbish? Yet, when the time came, I decided I’d at least give it ten pages. Boy was I pleasantly blown away.

I’ve always had a predilection for children’s fantasy. In my opinion, the best single, all-round novel is Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (though a cult favourite, the movies do not come within a hair’s breadth of how great the book is). And of course there is the inimitable Roald Dahl who gave me years of fantastic escapism. However, I’ve not come across anything even near their quality since. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Harry Potter series but the writing itself is just not as good. Then I read Ms Near’s debut novel.

Her prose is pitch perfect. She uses a language both beautiful and suitably challenging for a teenager. Drawing on inspiration from Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allen Poe, she manages to fabricate a vividly colourful world within a tiny English coastal village with exactly the right tones of ghostly horror appropriate for her audience. Her main character, Isola Wilde, named after Oscar Wilde’s ill-fated younger sister, is at once identifiable as a girl who stands out for being herself. Isola can see things that others can’t, including ghosts, fairies, mermaids and gargoyles. Then one day, walking through her beloved wood, she comes across a dead girl in a cage who proceeds to haunt her in a terrifying way. Isola finds herself slowing becoming possessed by this ghost despite the best efforts of her six guardian “princes”. Interwoven through this is her unhealthy relationship with her manic depressive mother who fed her on the fairy tales that seem to be swallowing her up. Can her new love interest, Edgar save her?

It’s one of those rare books that I did not rush through the end because I wanted to start a new book.

The ending is also pretty spectacular. Perhaps not the most original but still perfect in its execution. The only thing I’d change is the cover.

When I closed this book, I had a massive smile on my face. I cannot wait for Ms Near’s next work.

Ghetto Dreams

Janice

One excellent result of this blog is that I’ve been approached to do book reviews. More books to read! How awesome is that? Granted, there are stinkers out there, especially with the proliferation of eBooks. It seems as if everyone just gets a lot more sloppy when there isn’t a physical book.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read the young adult ebook Janice by Jean Goulbourne published by Hope Road Publishing.

What most people know of Jamaica could probably be summed up in two words: Bob Marley. Yet the reality is far from worry-free happiness. Set in the rich and colourful vibrancy of Jamaica, Janice, is an engaging story of one teenager’s struggle with prejudice from others and herself.

Goulbourne manages to create distinct and strong characters you can sympathise with and the plot is one most teenagers the world over could identify with. Overcoming prejudice is something everyone faces to some degree. Very often they are our own prejudices that hinder us from growth and realising our full potential. So it is with Janice. Coming from the ghetto, with a father in prison, she is overjoyed when her mother earns a place as nursemaid to a rich family. However, she soon gets caught up in the relative luxury of her new surrounds and tries to deny her heritage. Through trial by a relatively mild fire, she learns that she needs to embrace her past and use it to help her to become the woman she can and should be.

Janice sets a very clear and strong message of a young person who may have grown up in difficult circumstances but overcomes them with determination, humility and plain good sense.

When putting a very distinctive accent to print, it can turn out absolutely awful and make the reader feel as if they’re wading through a thick sludge. Goulbourne, however, manages to bring across the Jamaican accent with a precision and clarity I wish all writers had.

I have a scant two criticisms of the book. I wish the author had injected even more of Jamaican culture into it, describing more of the sounds, smells, sights and tastes. I also thought she could have made the prose more complex for her audience. Young people nowadays mature at a much faster rate and so their reading levels are far more advance than we might imagine. For a young teen, it may read a little too simply.

Otherwise this was a very enjoyable, easy and satisfying read.

Oh Earl!

Quite apart from the usual nightmare of finding the right name for your child is the relaxing, fun activity of giving them nicknames. Iris has loads. From the usual Peanut, Pea, Baby, Monkey, etc to the not so often heard Bubbles, Chuchee and Fartex (given by Dad during her colicky phase, though if you ask me, it’s pot calling kettle). However, her first one, which came so naturally was Bobo. We have since come across this in various characters in books and film, just go the Wikipedia entry to see how widely it’s used! Of course, at the time, we thought it was pretty unique. Thus our delight when we came across Eileen and Marc Rosenthal’s I Must Have Bobo! and its sequel I’ll Save You Bobo!

I Must Have Bobo!

They’re both about a little boy named Willy who has a lovey (favourite toy/blanket), a monkey called Bobo. The problem is, his cat, Earl, also loves Bobo and is constantly trying to make off with it. Easy to read with a lovely sans serif font and clean drawings with a simple colour palette.

In I Must Have Bobo! Willy wakes up in a kerfuffle because he can’t find Bobo. He goes on to list all the things he needs Bobo for. Where is the monkey? Having a cuddle with Earl under the blanket. The day goes on and Earl keeps trying to steal Bobo away. Finally he succeeds and Willy goes on a hunt. He discovers them again in flagrante delicto on the sofa and very lovingly decides to curl up together with them. Earl, however, has other ideas.

I need Bobo!

Bobo are you there?

Where is that Bobo?  

For some reason, when Iris was about 20 months old, she developed an obsession with the sequel, I’ll Save You Bobo and not a night went by that she didn’t ask for it to be read, as can be seen by the wear on the book. She could memorise the words within a month and I used let her finish the last word of each sentence, which she was yell with absolute glee. This went on for several months. Then just as suddenly, her interest waned. Now, just as we hardly call her Bobo, she doesn’t remember her old flame either. It is still a great go-to book when she’s clamouring for one more and I want something short and sweet.

This time, Willy is reading about dinosaurs, or trying to at least what with a grey moggie clambering all over him. He then decides to write his own adventure story replete with a jungle, tigers, snakes and poisonous mushrooms. He makes a tent, of course, but Earl ruins it with his very ungainly attack. In retaliation, Willy writes a story where Earl is eaten by a snake. Earl, in turn, gives his own back at the end.

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Snake!

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The saga continues with the Rosenthals’ latest in the Bobo series, Bobo the Sailor Man!

 

Gently Subversive

After the tornado of visitors, we went back to Singapore for two weeks as I was celebrating a, ahem, major school-leaving anniversary. Anyway, at the time there was public uproar over the removal of three children’s books from the National Library and the National Library Board’s (NLB) subsequent announcement that the books would also be destroyed. I shan’t go into too much detail but you can read more about it here http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-28243356 and here http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/and-tango-makes-it-big-book-debate.

My main grouse with NLB was three-fold.

1. Why, when other government agencies are happy to ignore the public, do they have to get in a tizzy over one ridiculous, outspoken twit?

2. By removing the books they are displaying a weakness and lack of competence. The book was previously reviewed and allowed in 2009! To then retract that earlier decision damages their future credibility as an authority.

3. Did they have to have such an absolutely unnecessarily extreme initial reaction as to not only remove them from the shelves but to want to destroy the books as well?! This, in my mind, is what caused the most upset. After all, the government had not actually banned the books, the NLB just deemed them unsuitable, so why not offer them to someone else or put them in a reserve section?

Thankfully, for the sanity of everyone involved, the NLB revoked the decision to destroy the books and put them in the “adult” section. This incident, however, is quite representative of my birth country. Yes, many, many “daddy issues”. It was thus very amusing and refreshing for me to find this gem of local children’s writing when I visited one of the very, very few indie bookshops in Singapore, Books Actually.

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Juno by Lynette Wan and Dexian Feng is about a race of creatures called Kummies who lived in a Clementine tree on a fruit farm. Every Kummy was just like the other and they did the same thing every day: collect pretty seeds to display and ugly ones to keep in the backroom.

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All except one Kummy named Juno. He not only looked different from all the other Kummies, he also did something very strange. Instead of keeping the seeds, he buried them in the ground! The cheek! Although he became a social outcast and the subject of much whispering, Juno remained meek and resolute, hoping that some day the other Kummies would understand him.

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Then Juno fell very ill. The other Kummies only noticed his absence when the farm began to deteriorate and there were no more seeds to collect and needed someone to turn to for an alternative voice. Once Juno got all the Kummies planting seeds instead of keeping them in jars, the plants started growing and everyone was happy and happy to change.

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I think more Junos are needed, not just in Singapore but in the world. Less beating of breasts and shouting from hilltops and more working quietly but steadfastly to change the status quo. Of course, at the moment, I have some doubts as to whether Iris will be such a Kummy. She is after all prancing around the house belting out Disney’s latest earworm-inducing composition at the very top of her surprisingly large voice.

Tickled Pink as a Puffalunk

Becoming a parent has made going to bookshops even more exciting than they used to be, and believe me, I was a bookshop junkie. I could not leave one without desperately needing this or that book (usually at least three). Nowadays, I have an even better excuse for buying books in the form of an increasingly precocious three-and-a-half-year-old.

I think children’s sections in bookshops cater to precisely the kind of browsing you engage in for the genre. They’re often laid out on shelves, front facing, without any proper organisation so that you’re forced to lift out every book behind the first row. However, unlike with adult books, you don’t need to read the synopsis. Most of the time, you just need the cover and the title to tell you whether or not it’s something you like. Of course the shelves are usually cluttered with the prevalent popular titles, but once in a while, with a bit of digging, you find a gem you’ve not come across before.

The Tickle Tree_Cover

So it was with The Tickle Tree by Chae Strathie and Poly Bernatene. We were at the airport on the way to my granny’s 100th birthday celebration in Kuala Lumpur and had only ten minutes to spare. Bernatene’s fantastical cover called to me from behind a copy of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. I must say, I have a predilection for this sort of imagery (yes, I am a Tim Burton and Gaudi fan).

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Yet I also love Strathie’s imaginative words and don’t even mind that it’s a bit difficult to read in some places because of the way the words dance around the page.

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The book revels in the gloriousness of fantasy and questions one’s ability to see beyond the everyday. It asks if the reader has seen such things as “giant galumphs”, “marvellous musical meeps”, “luminous frinks” and “boomjangles”. Then tantalises by saying if you haven’t, it’ll tell you how. Interspersing the “boring” images of an ordinary village when it does this is quite clever, I think.

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The Tickle Tree_p9

I’m quite a stickler for good endings and, unlike with adult books, it’s not difficult to accomplish in children’s books. The Tickle Tree ends by revealing that all these wonderful things are waiting for you……”in your dreams” is such a fabulous ending. Perfect for bedtime!

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Rediscovering Your Wild Thing

Probably one of the top five benefits of becoming a parent is being able to experience childhood all over again albeit from a secondary point of view. It’s okay to jump in muddy puddles with undisguised glee (as long as you have an actual child with you). It’s perfectly acceptable to go hunting for worms and spiders. It’s a good thing to have more fun with the play dough/Lego/bubbles than your toddler. For me, it’s being able to read all the children’s books I want, especially those I missed out on when I was a child.

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a classic in every way. The illustrations, story and words are just as poetic and entrancing today as they were fifty years ago. It’s almost a travesty that I’ve never read it before. So obviously it was imperative to get it for Iris. It doesn’t teach any overt lessons. Instead it is a book that empathises with anyone who has ever had one of those days.

Everyone, child or adult alike, can relate to Max’s desire to be a beast sometimes. Every mother will relate to Max’s who sends him to his room without dinner.

Where the Wild Things Are

It is childish escapism that takes Max to a different world where he sees the “wild things” and becomes king of them.

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

I firmly believe this trick also won Sir Anthony Hopkins his Oscar for creeping the whole world out as Hannibal Lecter.

We’ve all been there, indulging in our ids, if only in our imagination. So Max does that, becoming king of the wild things and romping, stomping and howling to his heart’s desire.

Where the Wild Things Are

He mimics his mum by sending them to bed without dinner.

In my mind, I think Max realises, at this point, some of the complexity of being a parent and both sympathises and longs for his mum, who has also relented and brought him something to eat.

Where the Wild Things Are

This quickly brings him back, body and mind, to the loving security of home.

Where the Wild Things Are

At some point, when I’ve got my craft on, we will be making these awesome toilet paper roll puppets!