Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Why no posts?

Well, in case anyone's reading this, we have builders in at the moment and it's hard to concentrate on writing when there are people drilling holes in your wall! Normal service will be resumed soon, in the meantime, feel free to e-mail/comment if you want any recommendations.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Books for keen transitional readers

Right, so I'm going to write a recommendation list today, as it's Saturday. I'll focus on children aged about 10 to 12 who are keen on reading, but don't want to read children's books or books that are too adult. If I haven't reviewed these yet, I almost certainly will! This is by no means all of the books suitable, but it's a good starting point! If you have anything to add to the lists, please comment and I'll put it in (or at least read it).

Fantasy: Keys to the Kingdom series and the Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, The Carpet People, The Bromeliad, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and Nation by Terry Pratchett, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (some adult themes but very oblique), The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott, The Bartimeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, The Power of Five by Anthony Horowitz, The Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage, the Stravaganza series by Mary Hoffman, Midnight by Lene Kaaberbol, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

Sci-Fi, Spy and Adventure: The Artemis Fowl series, the Supernaturalist, Half-Moon Investigations and Airman by Eoin Colfer, the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, H.I.V.E by Mark Walden, the Traces series by Malcolm Rose, the Mortal Engines series and the Larklight series by Philip Reeve, Montmorency by Eleanor Updale, The Young Bond series by Charlie Higson

Romance and Friendship: The Confessions of Georgia Nicholson by Louise Rennison, most books by Jaqueline Wilson (the Girls in... series and Love Lessons contain more adult themes), the Jess Jordan series by Sue Limb, the first few books of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (some adult content in later books), Love 15 and the Teenage Worrier's Guide to... by Ros Asquith (some adult themes), Exodus by Julie Bertagna (some adult themse, some sci fi!).

The Romance and Friendship section is a little sparse because nearly all of these books do contain adult themes - just let me know what you think is suitable and I can make better judgements.

Hope this list helps, anyway - I'll keep adding to it - and happy reading!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Across the water!

Well, not in that direction. Today we're heading to Australia, the home of Garth Nix, the undisputed master of teen fantasy fiction. Nix has written more books than you can shake a stick at, and if I were to try to write them all down I'd definitely miss some! Suffice it to say that from the Old Kingdom series to the Keys to the Kingdom series, passing through the Seventh Tower series on the way, you and your child will be well catered for.

There's a good variety of age-suitable reading here, from the Old Kingdom series which contains a lot of horror and some adult themes, through to the Keys to the Kingdom series, an enjoyable fantasy romp suitable for slightly younger but adept children. The books are definitely ones for transitional readers, and they're a little more edgy than traditional children's fare.

Nix has a wonderful way with words and with characters, and manages to pull off the reluctant-and-less-able hero every time, which you'd think would eventually get boring. For readers who prefer a bit of sci fi in the mix, he also wrote Shade's Children, which is very different from his usual fantasy style, and also contains one or two adult themes.

As a writer, Nix might tend to stick to fantasy, but a lot of his books have an enjoyable blend of science and magic which serves to make them a lot more accessible to the reader than most fantasy novels are. Another factor in this is his excellent use of characters. Whether it's Tal in the Seventh Tower series, or Arthur Penhaligon in the Keys to the Kingdom series, they are immediately human, and very easy to identify with.

But his talent doesn't end there. In Sabriel, the first book in the Old Kingdom series, Nix writes the eponymous female character so real that you'd almost think he'd been a woman. This might sound a little petty, but fantasy is quite often a male-dominated field (and also usually a plot rather than character driven field), and so to find a believable female character is always a godsend, especially for girls who might otherwise be put off from fantasy.

So, how readable are they? Well, these books are accessible pretty instantly, as they explain the various fantasy worlds without the need for pages of description, and they have some excellent characters. Once you've got that far, they've also got some pretty rip-roaring plots. But as always with fantasy, not all kids are going to like it, and that's especially true of those who might find reading difficult. If they do get into the series, I'd say that they'll find them a total gem, but some kids are put off by the idea of magic and myth, and they're just not going to like Nix's stuff. I was personally a little disappointed with the end of the Keys to the Kingdom series, but I can't speak for all his readers there. Overall, a fantastic set of books for any kid who likes, or might like fantasy. Oh, and Garth Nix? It might be the perfect name for fantasy, but it's his real name.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

What's life without a talking mouse?

Today's review/recommendation is dedicated to the memory of Brian Jacques, who died last week. Jacques wrote the acclaimed Redwall series, which has been popular for years with children of both genders from the ages of about 8 to 12.

The series focuses around a fantasy world populated by talking animals, with a clear good/evil divide made between 'vermin' such as stoats, rats, foxes and weasels, to name a few, and good creatures such as mice, badgers, moles and shrews. Although you might see a worrying tendency to demonise creatures of a certain species, Jacques does challenge this in his book 'The Outcast of Redwall', so children aren't taught by this series just to judge blindly.

'Redwall' was the first book published in the series, and is a good starting point, although it has some differences from the rest of the series and is not the first book chronologically speaking. There isn't really any need to follow the publishing order, though, as each book stands alone, although certain characters will make several appearances. 'Mossflower', the second published book but first to be written, is another excellent starting point.

The series is usually focused around Redwall Abbey, and tends to involve large pitched battles to the death, exciting confrontations, humorous interludes, and surprisingly well-fleshed-out characters. Expect tear-jerking scenes (for the kids, not you), riddles to solve, and a variety of funny accents to play with if reading out loud. The animals also eat fantastically well, with huge feasts at the least provocation, and it has been suggested that the reason for Jaques' amazingly realistic descriptions is that he first began writing these stories for the pupils of a school for the blind. In any case, the stories are great to read out loud, but voracious readers may well take the books from you and finish them. The books are long, but each one is its own little epic, and may well introduce children to the idea of reading longer books.

I should make it clear that Redwall is a series that kids grow out of. I don't know many children who kept reading the books into their teens, and the books have an essentially childish nature, for all of their themes of love and war, that tends to put off older readers. Also, the level of description (and the talking animals) might well put off reluctant readers, although that said, imaginative children will have great fun working Redwall into their games.

However, for the time that the kids do love Redwall, each new book that they find will be a joy. Younger children can be introduced to the series through the Redwall picture books, such as 'The Great Redwall Feast', which is beautifully illustrated by Christopher Denise. And even though I grew out of Redwall years ago, I still have a soft spot for all the old stories I used to read, and would recommend them to intelligent young children who might be bored of shorter books. Thanks, Brian Jacques. RIP.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Let's start as we mean to go on...

And winner of the first official review/recommendation prize is...

Anthony Horowitz with Alex Rider!

Well, let's face it. Who doesn't want to join MI6, save the world on a weekly basis, be fluent in several languages and be able to be moody and teenage at the same time? Alex Rider is one of the biggest hits of the past decade, and rightfully so. As well as this series, Horowitz has also written various Horowitz horrors, Groosham Grange, the Diamond Brothers and the Power of Five series, all of which deserve recommendations for one thing or another. But let's start with the superspy.

This series starts with one of the best opening lines I have ever read. 'When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news'. Now, if that doesn't hook you in, I don't know what will. But we're not talking false promises here.

Stormbreaker, the first book in the series, is filled with gadgets, weaponry and an array of vehicles more unlikely than the last (from quad bikes to submarines), super villains with terrifying sidekicks, obligatory foreign accents and dastardly plots to destroy England. Alex is the 14 year old unwilling spy who finds himself roped into a covert operation by MI6, undergoes SAS training and has to save the world.

It's not a series for fainting flowers, but that said, it's not that scary. There are a few incidents that could be frightening, but apart from the usual spy fodder of high speed chases, guns, and the occasional wild animal there's nothing to really chill the blood until you get to Eagle Strike, the fourth book in the series, and even then it's not too bad.

One of the best things about the series is the level and depth of the research that Horowitz has done. You're not often required to suspend disbelief, and he even used his teenage son's experiences of things like snowboarding to give him a better idea. However, I've been told by a few people that they find the level of detail that Horowitz goes into a little overwhelming at times, and there are places when the books read like a Haynes Manual (it's never an aeroplane, it's a 'single engine Cessna Skyhawk SP'), but to be honest, this is part of the charm. Even when Horowitz is throwing jargon about like there's no tomorrow, he manages to keep the flow of the story going. For my part, as a girl reading it, I found it a little lacking in realistic characters, but then that's par for the course with spy novels. There's enough dry humour to keep the parents going, and it's not a book that ever makes concessions for its audience, which is important to a lot of kids.

Obviously, as the book has more than a hint of Ian Fleming, there are girls with such names as Sabina Pleasure and Fiona Friend, and they inevitably play a part. But there's nothing more than kisses so we're not talking unsuitable.

I'd recommend the Alex Rider series for kids of about 10 or 11 who are fairly resilient and good readers, maybe older if they're not keen on mild gore or find reading difficult. It's great for reading together, with chapters often ending with nice one-liners, and this might circumvent some of the problems of detail or difficult words. On the whole, this series is usually a winner for reluctant readers, especially boys, and since Stormbreaker has been made into a live-action movie and graphic novel, there are more ways to get into the series. Some of the later books don't have the easy charm of the earlier ones, but all said, it's definitely a series worth getting into.

Welcome to the Ivory Tower

As an occasional librarian, the question I am asked most often is 'My son/daughter is looking for something to read, but they don't want to read children's books and I don't want them reading unsuitable books - what should I do?'

Well, okay. That's not really the question I'm asked most often. That's probably 'Excuse me, where are the toilets?', or 'My child/pet/grandmother chewed this book, can I return it?', or on one memorable occasion, 'Do you think the government is out to get me?'. But it is the question I'm most often asked that relates to books.

And the thing is, normally librarians are kind of busy. What with showing people the toilets, shelving books, cleaning up a spillage near the computers and trying to stop someone's toddler running slap-bang into that sharp corner you've been meaning to report, there's not always that much time to really help everyone pick a book. Not that we don't try, of course, but we'll normally just direct someone towards the Internet in the vain hope that there will be an appropriate website, or a school list, or even teachers, without stopping to think that actually, there might be a few books that we could recommend. 

I've got no particular problem with any of these, but  it strikes me that actually any list or website tends to be someone pushing their own book baby designed for a problem audience (boys who won't read! Give them football stories! All boys like football stories!). So, here I am, ready to offer impartial advice and hopefully draw your attention to a load of really inspiring books along the way.

And actually, I've really read most of the books I'm going to recommend, and can honestly tell you if there's anything unsuitable, or a bit gory, but if I'm really honest, kids are a lot more robust and capable of making their own decisions about books than you think, and can cope with the occasional monster under the bed... Who else were fairy stories written for? But here I am anyway, with a tower full of really good books that you can play around with, each with my own personal recommendation and seal of approval. Happy reading!