Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

I’m really bad at keeping on top of modern culture. There’s just so much of it, and so much stuff around the corner behind us that I want to peak back at. That’s no bad thing, just a reflection of how much awesomeness there is out there. But it means that as I think back on what I’ve really enjoyed this year, not all of it’s actually from this year. Still, here are the new(ish) things that really rocked my brain in 2014:

Reading

I’ve done more reading recently, as my befuddled brain has emerged from the fog of the last few years. And from that enshrouding miasma appeared a thing of spell-binding beauty – Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. They’re big, slow, weighty reads, but well worth the heavy lifting. Many thanks to Glenatron and Everwalker for pointing me towards Kay, and to Sheila for the present.

This was the year Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie returned to their old stomping ground of pop culture as magic, launching The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a beautiful looking and cleverly written comic that explores what it is to be an artist, a fan and a believer. There are clever layouts, smart references, intriguing characters and a fascinating plot. The only thing currently matching it is Chew, with its crazy world building, madcap plotting and offbeat characters. These two together show that comics can be fun, wild, entertaining and carry a serious emotional message all at the same time. They also show that the medium doesn’t have to get all dark to get beyond superheroes.

Viewing

Speaking of superheroes, did Marvel bring their A game this year or what? Agents of SHIELD turned from a limping pet only fanboys would love into a TV show that is dark, twisty and full of character. Tying its fate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier crippled it for most of its first season, but then created a moment of spectacular cross-platform awesomeness. The film and TV show spiralled around each other in ways that let them entertain as stand-alone viewing but break new ground as a cultural project. It helped that the Winter Soldier was a good film in its own right.

As if that weren’t enough, Marvel also brought out the biggest, funnest thing I watched in the cinema this year – Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of bickering misfits, forced to work together to save themselves and the universe? A talking raccoon and his walking tree buddy? A dance-off against a villain? Hell yes, I’m in for that. It wasn’t a smart film, or a ground-breaking one, but man was it ever entertaining.

But my favourite new film this year didn’t get a cinematic release, and that’s part of why I loved it. Joss Whedon, mastermind behind Marvel’s Avengers movies, took time out from his regularly scheduled blockbusters to help create In Your Eyes, a beautiful and unusual film about love and an inexplicable magical connection. It also took a bold approach to distribution that, for me, points towards the future I want to see. Just when we thought Whedon couldn’t get any more awesome, he upped his game again.

Aside from that, I’ve been making much more use of YouTube, and particularly recommend the PBS Idea Channel. Every week they come out with a slice of smart commentary, combing intellectual insight with popular culture. So cool.

 

Listening

Here’s where we leave science fiction and fantasy behind. I listen to some sf+f podcasts, and a bit of geeky music, but my favourites this year have been other things.

The Revolutions Podcast is an entertaining and extremely well presented show covering some of the most fascinating slices of history – political revolutions. So far it’s covered the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Now it’s onto the French Revolution. Mike Duncan previously created the excellent History of Rome podcast, but this is even better. If you like history at all, check it out.

Musically, my favourite discoveries this year haven’t been new to this year, but they’ve been new to me. A friend pointed me toward the Wanton Bishops, a spectacular blues rock outfit from Lebanon. For pure grinding energy, they’re hard to beat.

 

Then there’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I like to hear clever rapping and pop musicians getting away from tired themes of romance and and self-aggrandisement. Macklemore absolutely hits the spot, backed by Ryan Lewis’s catchy and diverse beats, from pro-equality anthem Same Love to the ridiculously exuberant Lets Dance to recycled shopping tribute Thrift Shop. Even when they’re crafting whole songs about Cadillacs, basketball or trainers, their sheer passion keeps me wanting more.

 

But my heart really lies with folk rock, and for that I recommend checking out The Patient Wild. Theirs are beautifully crafted storytelling songs, the sort of thing I can’t get enough of. And a member of the band reads this blog, so everybody wave to Glenatron – hi dude!

Gaming

As Laura will testify, I’m pretty much obsessed with the card game Smash Up, in which you combine genre favourite factions to battle it out for domination. Whether I’m leading robot ninjas against time travelling pirates, or dipping into madness with the Cthulhu expansion, I would happily play this all day every day. It’s a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the story/game combo of Device 6, which showed just what great things we can do with storytelling in the age of phone apps. Looking back, it feels like a test piece for greater things to come, but it’s a fascinating and atmospheric test piece.

And now I’m addicted to Minecraft. I’ll probably blog about this another day, but it’s kind of like having a giant Lego set on my Kindle, except a Lego set where zombies try to kill me. I don’t know why I didn’t play it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t given how much time it’s sucking away.

Other stuff

Tiger stripe espresso beans. Manchester’s beautiful new central library. Costa Coffee’s caramel crunch cake. This year has been full of great stuff. Here’s hoping for more.

And so, in a variation on yesterday’s question, what have been your cultural highlights this year, big or small? Please share some recommendations in the comments, give me cool things to check out next year.

Thinking about Redwall also reminded me of its prequel, Mossflower. I enjoyed Mossflower. It had many of the things that I’d loved in the first book – animals with funny accents, fantasy action, delicious sounding food.

Now that's what I call a boat

Now that’s what I call a boat

But somehow it didn’t feel quite right. The legend of Martin the Warrior loomed so large over Redwall that reading about his adventures couldn’t live up to the vague but exciting image I had in my mind. It’s part of the problem with the Star Wars prequels too – they could never live up to the things us fans had imagined over the years.

Are prequels always doomed to disappoint? Given the pictures we all paint in our minds about what’s come before will they always leave most of the audience disatisfied, no matter how hard the author tries?

I don’t know for sure. I can’t think of enough prequels that I’ve read or watched to draw a firm conclusion. But as logic goes it feels right.

What do you think? Can you point me at some good or bad prequels? Or do you feel the same about sequels too?

I know that New Year is meant to be a time for looking forward, but I just read a post that made me want to wax nostalgic. So today lets give it up for a children’s fantasy classic – Redwall.

The cover of the edition of Redwall I read - still creeping me out after all these years

The cover of the edition of Redwall I read – still creeping me out after all these years

Rats and mice and swords

Redwall is an anthropomorphic animal fantasy story in which good animals defend their abbey home from bad animals. The first in a series of books by Brian Jacques, it was one of my first fantasy reads and I’m still a fan. It’s a bit twee for adults unless you’re riding a nostalgia wave, but it’s a great fun read for kids.

West country moles

The reason I love this book is in the details. Different types of animals have different accents, from the broad rural accents of the moles to the Irish ferret sidekick to whatever the shrews are meant to be. The routines and festivities of life in a medieval-style community are nicely laid out. And the food, the endless, delicious-sounding food, like an Enid Blyton picnic made magnificent.

Sure, there’s an exciting tail of peril and adventure as well, but what matters is the moles and the scones.

OK, but…

I recently re-read Redwall as a bedtime book for Mrs K. As an adult I can see some problems with it. The love interest is a terrible example of the traditional soppy domesticated helpless little woman. The lead is kind of bratty, though he’s the mouse equivalent of a teenager so lets call that good characterisation. And by making certain species of animals good and others bad it shares The Wind in the Willows’s uncomfortable underlying message that our morality is, in part at least, pre-destined from birth.

Still it’s a vivid adventure, one of courage, intelligence and determination in the face of terrible odds. It’s an accessible introduction to sword-wielding fantasy for primary age children. And it’s a book that I’ve loved for decades, and I can’t wait to share it with a future generation.

We are quite rightly cautious about how we expose young people to the literature of previous generations. There may be values and ideas in there that are no longer acceptable, like the infamous Tintin in the Congo or Enid Blyton’s golliwogs. But there are different approaches to this, as a four year old recently taught me.

The problem

I love Asterix the Gaul. The illustrations are fabulous, the adventures are exciting, the jokes are perfect for a kid or for an adult who grew up with them. All those silly names and enormous noses. Just brilliant.

But the Asterix books are, at their heart, very problematic. There’s the casual racial stereotypes on which they are built, which never quite reach Tintin in the Congo territory but can come damn close. There’s the fact that women are in short supply and when they do appear usually do so for the sake of comedy. Just occasionally they also get to be upset, rescued or the objects of lust – you can tell which women those are because they’re drawn differently. And underneath all this is an insidious racial and national essentialism – one nation, the Gauls, is made up of good and heroic people; another, the Romans, is made up of villains and incompetents. Looking at the broad strokes, as readers we’re cheering on a morally, physically and intellectually superior master race, who just happen to be largely conquered at the moment. When I put it in those terms I feel kind of creeped out.

So should we stop reading Asterix with children? Surely we don’t want them taking in these values? Lets stick with equally awesome but more enlightened texts shall we?

But then they won’t get Asterix, and that’s kind of sad.

From the mouths of babes

Despite all these qualms, a couple of weeks ago I found myself reading Asterix with my young nieces. Because, as I mentioned, Asterix is awesome, and they love the pictures. As we were reading, the Princess came out with a phrase that made me feel better:

‘There aren’t any shes’.

I was so proud. My niece, who is only five this week, was smart enough to recognise the gender inequality in that story and to want to challenge it.

Because a few stories like this, in isolation, won’t warp children’s views. I grew up reading Asterix and Tintin and I’m about as socially liberal as you can get. As long as the kids read other, more balanced stories, and get to discuss what they mean, then they’ll work this stuff out for themselves.

In fact, being exposed to old-fashioned stories, being given the chance to challenge them, may be an important part of developing those skills. It gives them a chance to work things out for themselves, to challenge the words they are presented with, to become independent thinkers. It also gives us, as adults, a chance to help them express what they’ve noticed and to think about it more deeply, which can only be a good thing.

It’s easy to underestimate the intelligence and agency of children. And it’s a sad thing, because treating them as smart and independent helps them learn to be smart and independent. So next time I’ll get the Asterix out again. And maybe I’ll ask if she thinks that all Spaniards look like the ones in the story. Lets challenge some racial stereotypes too Princess.

It’s fascinating to see how the darkest experiences can bring out the lightest, most joyful stories.

Just look at Judith Kerr, an escapee from Nazi Germany and author of the fabulously popular children’s book The Tiger Who Came To Tea. This is a lady whose family fled Hitler and who went on to live through the Blitz. Whose father suffered a stroke on his return to Germany, and as a result took his own life. And yet her stories are full of joy and light, even when, in a moment Michael Rosen has compared to the Nazis regime, a tiger bursts in and turns the house upside down.

Having survived darkness, Kerr turned towards the light. Whereas I, with a privileged middle class British upbringing, find myself constantly turning towards the disturbing and the hidden when I write. I wonder if it’s just natural curiosity, wanting to make the unknown known, or some part of ourselves that seeks out balance. But as impulses go it intrigues me. After all, heroic fantasy has arisen in an era of peace and prosperity for its biggest audiences, so I don’t think it’s just me.

They say write what you know. But don’t we all want to write about something unknown?

How about you? When you’re reading or writing, do you find yourself drawn to works that reflect your own life, or that are its opposite? Do you want peace and light, or to peer into the dark corners?

And please, go read the BBC article on Judith Kerr. She’s a fascinating lady, and the absolute perfect picture of what a 90 year old children’s author should look like.