Rediscovering Old Gems

Another brilliant perk of being a parent (as if you needed more), apart from being legitimately allowed to play with toys again, is rediscovering all my old favourite books and sharing them with someone else who’ll appreciate them just as much.

Dean's Enchanting Tales from The Magic Forest

Dean’s Enchanting Stories from The Magic Forest  was one of those books I kept reading over and over again. I remember how I loved looking at famed illustrators Gillian and Ronald Embleton’s beautiful illustrations waaaaaaay back when.


Published by Dean & Son, which was famous for its “moveable books”, the book follows Hans and Gretchen on their morning walk through the enchanted forest next to their farmhouse. They encounter myriad magical creatures from flower folk to dwarfs and a talking lion. It’s divided into neat chapters should the book prove too much after a long day. Iris is really into bookmarks at the mo.




Unlike the Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson or Scheherazade tales, which all tend toward the macabre, Dean’s Enchanting Stories from The Magic Forest is pleasantly light and happy with only one mildly scary bit when a very naughty gnome leads the children astray in a gloomy, foggy bit of the forest. Although this also helps to teach Iris about not following strange men, so still a win!


This is one of a series of such books, all of which were illustrated by the Embletons and are all out of print. However a quick eBay search yielded copies of three of the four books. Now I need to find a vinyl record player for my seriously retro audio books!


Lost in Translation


My third foray into young adult literature has been less enthusiastically positive. Having read books translated from loads of different languages, I have to say the most difficult to get right is by far those translated from Mandarin and its dialects. Having spent 14 years trudging through the language in school, I do have some understanding of it. Perhaps that is why I feel translations from Mandarin are not as good, but I don’t think so. It’s in the structure and nature of the language. Mandarin being so, extremely different from English it is virtually impossible to capture the exact tone and lyricism of the original. I should probably read those books in Mandarin, but then that would take me about a year and I still wouldn’t understand it!

So it is with White Horse by Yan Ge. Set in a small town in China, the plot follows ten-year-old Yun Yun. Through her older cousin, she is introduced into the ways of love, while learning to live with her single father and his various love affairs. This culminates in an explosive scene of revelations and mild violence.

White Horse plunges its reader right into the thick of Chinese culture with all its complexities and societal idiosyncrasies. This can be good and bad. While you get a sense of how a small Chinese community would behave, it’s delicate nuances can be lost on those not already familiar with the culture. For example the white horse could be pointing to the one in the Buddhist story, Journey to the West, where the horse symbolises mental will. Or it could refer to Gongsun Lu’s White Horse Dialogue, reading which gives me a headache.

Yet acclaimed author, Yan Ge’s literary skill does emerge in certain aspects of this snapshot of Yun Yun’s coming of age, which is vivid and believable. How she deals with the emotional turmoil surrounding her is poignant and easily related to. The imagery of the white horse, with or without the background historical information, is powerful and well done.

With the language, it definitely does not flow as well as if it were read in Chinese (I imagine) and Chinese idioms directly translated into English always sound ridiculous and totally out of context. Also, a warning that it contains one very explicit swear word.

Despite its flaws, it’s an interesting read that makes you think and would appeal to some. Particularly those going through similar situations (single families, older siblings becoming sexually active). I would recommend this for mid to late teens.

Politely Murderous


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


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.





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 and here

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.