Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A BIG Space on the Bookshelf Congratulations to the 2015 Carnegie Medal Winner...


As ever the 2015 crop of Carnegie short-listed books was a bumper load of fantastic and beautifully woven stories. This make pegging for a winner difficult, but I’m totally thrilled to say a...

 Big Congratulations

to Tanya Landman for taking home the prize for her emotionally charged historical YA novel, Buffalo Solider. Buffalo Solider was one of the books that I reviewed [press here to read] and was the book that I was backing [press here to read our SOTB round-up] so I was very pleased to hear that it won!

Congratulations to all the short-listed authors, we much enjoyed reading your book, and we at SOTB look forward to reading and reviewing your future books!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Carnegie fever - and the most likely winner is . . .

Who would envy the judges of the Carnegie Medal, trying to decide which one single title is the outstanding book of the year?

We have enjoyed reading and discussing the books on this year’s shortlist – all of which are successful examples of authors striving to achieve something different and worthwhile in their writing.

The very best books are more than simply entertainment. They can be glimpses into other people’s lives and a chance to be gripped by how someone handles a situation you might never experience yourself. Which criteria do you use to say which is the best?

Whoever wins will be joining an illustrious list of past winners, starting with Arthur Ransome in 1936 and including Frank Cottrell Boyce, Anne Fine, Neil Gaiman, CS Lewis, Penelope Lively, Terry Pratchett, and Noel Streatfeild – authors who continue to delight and entertain and who keep children reading to this day and you hope will never go out of print.

What can you read into the state of the book market for children looking at the shortlist?

This year’s list is dominated by female writers. And with only one title being for younger readers there are three aimed at ‘older teens’, and four aimed at 11+ (which seems to be increasingly called ‘tween’ readership). Half are contemporary stories, two historical and three set in a fantasy version of the world. So it is not easy at all to compare them as they are all trying to achieve different things.

Several on the list are familiar names associated with Carnegie – past winners, some having been nominated before. Only one really fresh name in there.

So – without further ado – who would we like to win and who do we think will win?

Sally says: “I love shadowing the Carnegie, as it makes me read out of my usual comfort zone, and thereby discover amazing books and brilliant writers. Every year the Carnegie short-list is packed with really gripping, exquisitely written books that make you think. This obviously makes backing a single book a very difficult endeavour. 

“This year I read and reviewed 2013 winning author Sally Gardner’s 11+ picture book ‘Tinder’. Loving fairy tales as I do, and picture books, and being a fan of Sally Gardner’s writing, I was totally gripped by the authentic fairy tale voice, and dark narrative with classic fairy tale and folklore elements woven into a very real and through provoking yarn.

“I believe Sally has a real chance of scooping up the award and that Tinder may even become a double winner as it is also shortlisted for the Greenaway picture book award.

“Tanya Landman’s shortlisted book, Buffalo Solider, is an utterly absorbing read, a historical adventure of a young newly freed slave girl in the aftermath of the US civil war, who takes extraordinary measures to survive by posing as a man and becoming a Buffalo Solider. 

“Tanya Landman has written a tale which is so well realised it take you back to the time, opening your eyes to a much neglected aspect of recent history; how freedom affected the newly liberated slaves.  I would really love to see 'Buffalo Solider' take the award, as its clever writing explores not only a period in history which is largely ignored, but also the crueller aspects of humanity.”

Nicki said: “I am a huge fan of Frances Hardinge, who just seems to get better and better and I think ‘Cuckoo Song’ is so strong and imaginative, yet the world building is evenly balanced with brilliant characters. It manages to be creepy yet compelling and the slow-burn tension just kept the pages turning for me; it’s a well-told mystery. I think Frances is a rather brilliant but underrated writer and would love to see her win as I think it would introduce many new readers to her superb work.

“I also loved the heart-warming ‘Apple and Rain’ and this is the one that seems to have successfully reached out to children and have many of them asking for more. If the criteria was to get children devouring books and wanting to read, then ‘Apple and Rain’ would probably win hands down.”

“For me, the stand-out title was ‘More than This’. I loved the fact that it was both an exciting page-turning thriller, but also a philosophical novel. I loved that every aspect of the novel challenged – it wasn’t a straightforward single-thread, linear narrative (as we are so used to seeing in children’s books).

“The baddie was truly terrifying and the backstory heartbreaking. You warmed to all the characters and the friendships. So for me it was without flaws and dealt with big issues in an accessible way, which is really the epitome of writing for young people.”

Friday, 19 June 2015

Carnegie Shortlist Review - The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean


‘The piano arrived too late to stop the sky falling in.’

The intriguing first line of The Middle of Nowhere introduces the reader to a compelling setting and interesting characters. We go on to learn that Comity Pinny’s mother has suddenly died. Comity and her father, Herbert, are numbly absorbing this, and soon they begin reacting to their grief in very different ways. Comity finds some solace in her friendship with an Aboriginal boy, Fred, who was also close to her mother. Unfortunately, even this small measure of comfort is threatened by the station assistant, Quartz Hogg. His cruelty towards Fred opens Comity’s eyes to the racism that Aboriginals face from her own community, and along with her own mistruths, and a sprinkling of dead bodies, the story changes direction, culminating in a thrilling ending.

Comity is a beautifully rounded character who is brave and has an engaging imagination. The way Geraldine McCaughrean reveals different aspects of how she copes with the death of her mother through Comity’s own viewpoint, and later, though another character’s, is truly masterful.

The Middle of Nowhere of the title is the only home Comity has known, in the remote Australian outback, where Herbert mans the wireless station. Geraldine McCaughrean’s vivid yet simple descriptions infuse every line of the story, and it has a stronger a sense of place and time (it is set early in the last century) than I’ve read in any other children’s book this year. This is also enhanced by Fred’s Aboriginial legends and Comity’s Bible stories and hymns, which they teach each other.

This book is recommended by its publisher for children aged 11+. The tricky themes of isolation, grief and racism are handled with sensitivity, and I agree with this recommendation. However, some young readers I’ve discussed this book with have reported putting it down and not coming back to it - the narrative does have a slow start. They have been encouraged to hear that the second half of the book has a lot more action. Other young readers have raved to me about the beauty of this book, appreciating how the quieter beginning helps establish the parallels between the isolated and lonely location and the inner lives of the characters.

Everyone familiar with the prolific Geraldine McCaughrean’s work knows that they have a treat in store when she releases a new book. She has only won the Carnegie Medal once before, in 1989 for A Pack of Lies. The Middle of Nowhere is a beautiful book that thoughtful readers will gain immense pleasure from for many years to come.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Carnegie Shortlist Review - Tinder by Sally Gardner with Drawings by David Roberts

Sally Gardner is no stranger to the Carnegie short-list, in 2013 her novel Maggot Moon scooped up the award (press here to read our review). Now she’s back with the amazingly beautiful Young Adult picture book; Tinder, which isn’t only up for the Carnegie but for the Greenaway too. So it is more than possible that Sally (and illustrator David Roberts) could walk away with an award in each hand!

Tinder is a testament to the power of fairy-tales, and their ability to evolve to be relevant in an ever changing society, as Sally takes her inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s dark and twisted tale, ‘The Tinder Box.’

Set in the war torn regions of Germany in the 15th century Tinder is a dark and evocative tale of one solider shun and flee the bloodied battlefields of Breitenfeld betting his future on the roll of enchanted dice.

“ ‘ I wait or no one,’ said Death.
‘You’ve feasted well today,’ I said. ‘What difference would my soul make?’
It was then that Death and his ghostly army vanished.”

The dice guide Otto through perilous forests populated with deserters, thieves and a mysterious stranger that transforms into a wolf by removing his belt. Dicing with death Otto happens by a traveller; a boy who is not quite as he seems.

“’It’s not fair that girls should be bound up in skirts. I would rather be a boy, then I would be free to travel like you’. He took his hat off and threw it down. All about him cascaded fiery curls and a young woman stared at me with defiant eyes.”

The pair fall in love yet in a land soaked in blood and defined by violence, the pair are separated as huntsman come to collect their prey; Safire leaving Otto to follow the dice in search of her.

Otto’s journey is one that brings terror and riches as he comes upon a wooden castle, home to the powerful Lady of the Nail, who sends Otto on a quest into the bowls of the castle to fetch something from under the watchful eyes of three gigantic wolves. The prize, a tinder box, becomes entwined in Otto’s destiny as he ventures on wards to save Safire from an arranged marriage and certain death.

The Tinder box brings blessings; wealth, the command over the three gargantuan lupines and a key to his ‘happily ever-after’ yet its price, a secret, which may well fashion his demise.

Tinder is written with rhythm of a fairy tales and brings a tale that’s woven with enchantment, betrayal, fear, and hope yet brings with it an image of the atrocities of war. In Tinder Sally Gardner explores the brutalities of war and the desperation of survival in a convincing fairy tale world, drawing from werewolf mythology making the story rich and layered. The book is beautifully illustrated on every page with black, white and red drawings by David Roberts that enhance the story adding to its eerie-gothic appeal. Despite the book being highly illustrated, due to some of its subject matter it is a book for older teenagers.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Apple and Rain - Carnegie Medal - Review

"A story about sad endings. 
A story about happy beginnings.  
A story to make you realise who is special.”

   Apple and Rain is an utterly absorbing book about thirteen year old Apple, who lives with her grandmother. She has some problems that are typical of a child of her age - a rocky friendship, an annoying neighbour and a crush on an older boy who doesn’t know she exists. But she’s also affected by much deeper issues - her grandmother is extremely overprotective, her relationship with her father is rocky, and her mother abandoned her to run off to America. Apple isn’t even sure if her only memory of her is real. And then comes the thing she always thought she wanted - her mother returns.

   A few chapters into the story, we have a set of familiar ingredients for an angsty-YA novel. Yet already this book is pulling us in deeper and faster than its synopsis might suggest; it is much, much more than the sum of its parts. Partly this is achieved by Sarah Crossan’s writing, which is deceptively, and beautifully, simple. And partly it is due to Apple herself, whose responses to the escalating turmoil of her mother’s return have us cheering for her and fearing for her in equal measure.   

  The cast of supporting characters also increase the depth and impact of this story. Apple’s flighty parents, dependable grandmother, easily-led school friend and unobtainable crush all go way beyond the cliched stock characters that we might initially expect. And there are three other supporting characters who quickly became my favourites. Del, Apple’s quirky neighbour, is a wonderful revelation. He begins as comic relief, but ends up bringing so much more to the story. Apple’s inspiring English teacher introduces the major theme of the truth and meaning to be found, and revealed, in poetry. Through his nurture of her burgeoning talent, Apple discovers Emily Dickinson’s  “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”, which is at much of the heart of this novel. And finally, the eponymous Rain. The heart wrenching heart-of-the-novel, Rain. But saying any more than that would be a spoiler, so I won’t. 

It is difficult to write about Apple and Rain without making it sound like a book that is purely for teenagers. But it isn’t. I cannot recommend it highly enough, for adults as well as teens and tweens. It is recommended for ages 11+ and Sarah Crossan deals with Apple’s considerable difficulties with sensitivity and a really light touch, so tweens really will find it accessible. There is none of the cynical, controversial content that some YA books seem to revel in, and this, if anything, helps it pack a bigger emotional punch.  
Apple and Rain is a slim book and a fast read. But it’s a story to return to: I read it it one sitting, then, ignoring the pile of other books needing my attention, immediately flipped to the front and started over. It contains universal truths about the different kinds of love, revealed through one of the most interesting young protagonists I’ve read about this year. Sarah Crossan has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal before, and I hope that this time she wins it. Though, if not, her next novel, One, is released in August of this year; you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve pre-ordered it.