Wise Owls – 29/06/2024

When I was a child, before we went on holiday there were two things I loved doing. One was fetching items from my mother’s extensive packing list: we never travelled without at least two teapots. The other was the trip to the library to choose our books. A week’s holiday meant we each needed a sizeable stack. Packing the car was a challenge: it required diagrams. A small child could be left behind in favour of another Just William book.

This early training has proven invaluable. I am very good at using all the nooks in a car boot, proficient when it comes to the selection of books for a holiday and know when to arm myself with a teapot or two (always).

I was returned to those library trips as I read Katherine Rundell’s essay, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, which opens with her recollections of the public library in Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe. The scents, the sun-bleached spines, the stories awaiting discovery… I hope everyone has a version of this memory, though I know that’s increasingly unlikely.

Rundell writes, “Adult life is full of forgetting… I’ve forgotten most of the books I’ve read, even the ones that changed me forever; I’ve forgotten most of my epiphanies. And I’ve forgotten, at various times in my life, how to read: how to lay aside scepticism and fashion and trust myself to a book. At the risk of sounding like a mad optimist: children’s fiction can reteach you how to read with an open heart.”

And so, books to make you a mad optimist:

Young adult upwards
Under a Dancing Star by Laura Wood: despairing of their bug-collecting, often mud-covered daughter, Beatrice’s parents send her away for a summer with her uncle in Italy. He will teach her sense and propriety. Except he has fallen in love with the charismatic Filomena, turned his estate into an artists’ collective and abandoned British reserve. In Italy, in these gardens, in the sunshine, with this much good food and company, with this much ado, who could remain immune to romance? (Yes, it’s inspired by Much Ado About Nothing; it’s marvellous.)
Apocalypse Cow by O. R. Sorrell: while it might sound appealing to those of us in the West Country to live in a world where it rains a little less, a world where it hasn’t rained for a year is concerning. If not to Mel. Instead she is worrying about her unrequited love for her best friend, Sasha. When animals begin mutating, the apocalypse becomes harder to ignore. Mel finds herself marooned with her least favourite classmates trying to avoid lethal hedgehogs.

Age 9 upwards
I Am Wolf by Alastair Chisholm: Wolf is fighting Hyena. It’s an epic battle to defend territory. But not as you know it. These aren’t animals but giant metal Constructs on which an entire tribe lives, together powering their creature through absolute faith in its superiority. Coll is part of the cunning, wild, ferocious Wolf. But the landscape is changing and perhaps the confines of the tribal system need to change too.
Miss Mary-Kate Martin’s Guide to Monsters: The Wrath of the Woolington Wyrm and The Trouble with the Two-Headed Hydra by Karen Foxlee: Mary-Kate is anxious about joining her mother on an archaeological dig in Woolington. She and her red shoes would rather stay at home. But once there she finds herself drawn into a mystery about the existence of a Wyrm with an appetite for children. Who better to act as detective than someone always carrying a strawberry-scented notebook and glitter pens? And once one has a taste for such investigations, well, onto the two-headed hydra…
The House in Cornwall by Noel Streatfeild: the four Chandler children are appalled to find themselves sent to stay with Uncle Murdock for the summer. He may have a grand seaside home but they are kept inside. Why have they become prisoners? What chance do the secretive grown-ups stand against four children who want the truth?

Age 5 upwards
Villains Academy by Ryan Hammond: following a book group discussion of Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton this week, I have had villains on the brain. In Birnam Wood, everyone is at least a portion villainous – all with Macbeth-like flaws to differing extents – and so it’s instructive to learn how to be very good at being bad. Welcome to the best school around. If you want to be really horrid. It’s guarded by dragons and you may not love sports day
Grimwood: Party Animals by Nadia Shireen: in the first book, fox cubs Ted and Nancy needed to escape an evil cat and sought a new life in Grimwood, where occupants include warring squirrels and some badgers in a convertible. The story is regularly interrupted by Eric Dynamite, a woodlouse who was previously a bus driver. The fourth in this chaotic and excellent series is here: Sharon the party crow has lost her groove and the gang must help her retrieve it. Includes, as you’d hope, dance moves, questionable medical procedures, woodlice, jazz-loving owls and Willow the ferocious rabbit.

Picture books
Mouse on the River by Alice Melvin: what’s the opposite of Grimwood? Mouse is travelling by river to visit a friend. It’s a peaceful journey, told in rhyme, with new animals and plants at every bend. The book is a work of absolute beauty with intricate details to spot and more illustrations hiding under fold-out flaps.
Who Ate Steve? by Susannah Lloyd, illustrated by Kate Hindley: quite simply the book of the year. I don’t want to give anything away. There are big animals. There are small animals. Marcel is a bird. Steve is a worm. I have never read a better plot twist. Have fun.  

Children’s non-fiction
We’re delighted to be supporting an event today with Amy Jeffs, author of Wild and Storyland. The latter, telling the myths and legends of Britain, has been adapted into a stunning children’s edition taking the reader from Orkney to Cornwall across untamed landscapes accompanied by demons and giants.

If you need a fix of one “adult” book this week, let it be The Last Time I Saw You by Jo Leevers. We are launching her second novel on Thursday 4th July. I don’t think there’s much else happening on that day… See you all in the Arcade at 18.30.

I leave you with Katherine Rundell’s wisdom, which may or may not be relevant to next Thursday’s events.
“Children’s books say: the world is huge. They say: hope counts for something. They say: bravery will matter, wit will matter, empathy will matter, love will matter. These things may or may not be true. I do not know. I hope they are. I think it is urgently necessary to hear them and to speak them.”

May your weekend be a storyland,

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