Archive for the ‘Children’s Books’ Category

The last eleven books I have read are from the CHERUB series by Robert Muchamore. My thirteen-year-old son offered to lend me the first one, The Recruit, and I read the next one, and the next one, in a haze of criminal gangs, drug deals, relentless beatings up, early morning training in the dojo, minuscule listening devices, slave trading, bleeding edge surveillance technology, slobbery kissing, teenage sexual yearnings, teenage sex, preteen drunkenness, the attempted rape of a twelve-year-old girl, care homes, sexism, murders, a topless women contest, eco-terrorism, child trafficking, religious cults, prison life and animal cruelty.

The books are good, action-packed, well-plotted, rapid reads, with some strong characters who develop throughout the series, and it’s a compelling series, which is something child readers usually enjoy. On the downside, not all the characters are exactly leaping off the page, and the emotional elements of the various romances which stud the books are too weightless to be believable. After eleven books I still don’t really care for the hero, James. And it’s not just that he’s a bit of an eejit, which is fine, but more that I don’t mind if he gets dumped, kisses other girls when he has a girlfriend elsewhere, damages his kneecaps or is sent to Coventry by the entire campus – I’m in no way invested in his successes and failures.

But who cares what I think? Eleven- to fifteen-year-olds are gobbling up the CHERUB books (and the related Henderson’s Boys series) at the moment. Muchamore knows his audience and he’s able to give them what they want. Some parents have been less impressed, though, and individual reviews on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com are laced with outrage that adult themes are dealt with in books aimed at young teenagers (and Muchamore himself has said he’s met nine- and ten-year-olds who have enjoyed the books). The author states that:

“…controversial subjects such as drug abuse, human slavery, brainwashing etc are depicted in the books. Although individual characters may espouse this behavior in specific scenes, the overall message of the story is always that these forms of behavior are completely unacceptable.”

The sex in the books, for example, is not described in any detail, which would have been a disappointment to me at thirteen. At that age I had definitely cracked the spines of more than one Jackie Collins; I was fourteen when Jilly Cooper’s Riders came out and was passed around school faster than a spare packet of crisps. If anyone had tried to prevent me from reading the books I’d have been boiling with rage and utterly unconcerned about breaking a ban.

Maybe I’d feel differently if it were, say, my nine-year-old reading the books, but I don’t feel any need to censor the CHERUB books, (though I do believe in being aware of what’s being read),  and it doesn’t even seem necessary for Robert Muchamore to say that the books give the message that these behaviours are unacceptable. Do we need books to give us moral messages? Are we wilfully blind to the language and themes that our children come across every day at school? As parents are we overly jumpy about what our precious cherubs read, or are we so slavishly grateful that they are reading at all that we’d pass them a Brett Easton Ellis when we’d finished with it?


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I’ve posted on The Anti-Room today, a superb group blog, so away you go to have a rummage around there. My post is about nursery rhymes, and wondering why I can’t remember any Irish ones, when my brain is coming down with English, Scottish and probably Welsh ones, not to mention American clapping games and German jumps. I’d love to know the rhymes that others remember, Irish or otherwise.

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My sister and I used to roller skate to our local library in Anglesea Road, intoxicated with the freedom of the pavements. The advantage of our clunky buckle-on skates over the cooler boot skates was that when you unbuckled them and slipped them off you were shod and library-ready, so you could just sling them over your shoulder and run upstairs to where the children’s section occupied one whole and glorious floor.  I think you were allowed to take two books out, for three weeks at a time, and it was the old system of a slip in the front of the book which was taken out and tucked into a special pocket on your ticket (green for children, blue for adults) which was then filed upright in a wooden tray behind the counter. You had to have a guarantor as a child borrower, and my father was guarantor for all of us. For someone who didn’t like lending his own books, he was a shocking late-returner of library books himself and stacked up some fat fines until he actually lost one of the borrowed books, which presumably was the last straw for the library because they blacklisted him and we had to get our tickets reissued with my mother as guarantor instead. That’s all nothing compared to George Washington, whose late fines on one book (221 years late) have been calculated at over 300,000 dollars; the book has finally been returned

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Catching up online with so many newspapers I didn’t read in the flesh at the time, I saw a very interesting piece written by the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell about the relationship between Lewis Carroll  and Alice as a girl, a necessary sale of souvenirs, etc. 
Alice wrote to her son Caryl (ooh, er, there you go): “But, oh, my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful? It is, only I do get tired.” It made me think about poor Christopher Robin Milne and the millstone of Pooh. Apparently the worst bit for CRM was not actually Pooh, but the poem Vespers (Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares. Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”) the Vera Lynn recording of which some of his contemporaries at Stowe played over and over again for pure torture, till Christopher eventually smashed the record into smithereens and scattered it over some playing field. 

Honestly, when you think about how people agonise over whether it’s acceptable to send a child to school in the wrong coat for fear of standing out, God love the poor blighter. He’d be a guaranteed no-pics-on-Facebooker.

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I had friends for lunch yesterday and one of them mentioned looking for old Chalet School books in the few secondhand bookshops which are left in Dublin. It was a bit shaming to admit that I still had my collection – not only that but they weren’t lurking in an old Tayto box in the attic but actually on a shelf two feet away from my desk, along with the Jill pony books, the Trebizon series and my Noel Streatfeilds. Sentimental? Moi?

In many ways the Chalet School books don’t really stand up to an adult reading, but that wouldn’t stop me relaxing in a warm Radox bath with one. I learnt my first German words from them, who the Nazis were, what the Anschluss was, and that if you’ve eaten too many sweets and cakes you make yourself sick and earn a jorum of castor oil. People in the Chalet School books are always blushing furiously, stalking out of rooms, coming to an understanding of their own faults and devising their own punishments. They tend to be characterised by a single personality trait – perhaps they are hot-headed, stolid, delicate, or naturally blunt – which haunts their behaviour through the books. Flicking through them yesterday I remembered immediately the haughty Prussian girl, scorned for eating smoked bacon, the plainspoken American who used cloves of garlic instead of cloves in her apple pie, the oversensitive French girl whipping up an omelette aux fines herbes, the reasonable German with flaxen plaits forever making peace between others, and of course Joey Bettany, always doing things wholesale and given to multiple births: once she’d married her doctor (every Chaletian’s happy ending) she never stopped having triplets and twins for the rest of the series, while maintaining her girlish figure, producing a couple of bestselling books a year, living in a succession of houses filled with fresh flowers and pretty chintzes, windows flung open for the invigorating mountain air, and adopting every passing child with domestic difficulties.
The Chalet School was a fine idea, an addictive series and a schoolchild’s dream, offering the perfect mix of risk and adventure (hikes going wrong, casualties on a frozen lake, life-threatening coughs, opportunities to blow up the chemistry lab) against a background of an exotic kind of consistency (Kaffee und Kuchen would be served in the Speisesaal come flood, fire or World War II). And the Armada paperbacks (editions which I think are scoffed at by true followers) were lovely matching ones in bright colours, which helped. Although I’m not a proper book collector in the sense of tracking down first editions and shunning reprints, I’m a shallow sucker for a row of shining-spined Grantas, the muted elegance of the Dublin Review, or the massed banded covers of the old Penguins. Books are a comfort, even if (gasp) you don’t read them, and because you’ve a book in the shopping bag you think your careless shopping is unimpeachable, somehow, a habit no-one could criticise. But half the time I think the books are a buffer, masking something else, fragments I am shoring against my ruin, and all that jazz.
I’ve certainly destroyed this nice hardbacked copy of Peggy with my massive sticker. Not even a discreet, tastefully engraved Ex Libris, oh no. I’m shocked to see it cost 40p a good 25 years ago. I paid 50c for The Shorter Pepys in a fat Penguin Classic last weekend. Wassap with that?


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I haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Alice yet but I’ve been looking at the books again. The story never bothered me when I was a child but the illustrations did, yuck. I have a Folio Society copy which was printed in 1961 but given to me by my grandmother in 1980, the same year that the facsimile edition of the handwritten and illustrated Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was published. 

God that neck still gives me the creeps. So does this big-head-tiny-body shot which is the look of the Red Queen in the new film. Shivers.

Interesting to compare Carroll’s own flamingo shot with Tenniel’s. 




21st March – Hmm I have now seen it. Wasn’t it a boy who slew the Jabberwock? 

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