Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Some books

I was asked by the British School in Rio to suggest some books for their libraries, so I am going to suggest some here. In recommending a particluar book, I am also recommending that writer. As I have said before, the idea of attaching a reading age or even an age range to a book is problematic, because a book might be too difficult for a child to read to themselves, but not is the book is read to them by a teacher or a parent. Equally, a book can be read at different ages and be appreciated in different ways. The books here cover the age range of anything from 8 to 12 and higher. Actually there are books here where I would feel uncomfortable putting any top age.

I have praised Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines books before on this blog and I am very happy to do it again. All four books are well-written, fast-paced and hugely imaginative, and though they may seem archetypal boys books at first glance, they do have strong female characters and the plots revolve around relationships just as much as they do about the mechanics of the mobile cities.

The idea behind The Indian in the Cupboard series of books is a brilliant one: a boy discovers that a combination of a certain cupboard and a certain key will bring plastic figures to life. But the success of the books is where Lynne Reid Banks goes with this idea, using it as a way to look at history and culture and friendship and the responsibility one has for ones actions, and for the unforeseen consequences of them. The boy discovers that he is not animating a piece of plastic, but bringing actual people unwillingly from their real lives. The series explores the mystery of the cupboard and the key.

Tom's Midnight Garden is such a brilliant book. It has everything you would hope to find in a novel written for any age group. A boy goes to stay with relatives in an apartment that is part of what was once a large house. There is an old clock in the communal hallway and when it strikes midnight, Tom finds his way out into the garden as it used to be and meets a girl. They both assume the other to be a ghost. What follows is an incredibly moving story about childhood and the loss of childhood, old age and memory. Philippa Pearce was an exceptional writer. Be sure to get a copy with the lovely original illustrations by Susan Einzig.

Eva Ibotson is a writer I really admire and I would recommend any of her books. I have shown this one simply because it is set in South America, but all of her books are great. Again it has a relationship between a boy and a girl at its core but there is a lot more going on here. Just as Mortal Engines might seem a boy's book, A Journey to the River Sea might seem a girl's book, but it defies that kind of simplistic categorisation. It is full of great characters (including one who collects glass eyes) and is beautifully written from start to finish.

No list like this would be complete without Philip Pullman. I have shown Northern Lights - by far the best book of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Much has been made of the references to Milton and the attack on established religion and dogma, but what sticks in the mind most of all are the amazing armoured polar bears and the brilliant idea of characters having a soul that lives outside of their body in the form of an animal. Rich and deeply intelligent writing, full of ideas.

A Wizard of Earthsea is a story about a boy who goes to a school where they train wizards. Sound familiar? A Wizard of Earthsea is a much darker book than those by J K Rowling. It has a wonderful depth and a strangeness to it. Fantasy writing can break down if the reader is not absolutely convinced by the world the writer creates. Right from the start, with its lovely map of the archipelago, there is no danger of that happening here. Ursula Le Guin also wrote one of my favourite short stories - The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas - a brilliant and timeless parable that should be required reading for all political leaders.

My son would never forgive me if I did not include a Tintin book. I spent a good deal of youth reading comics and I still do. Those who never read comics or graphic novels tend to regard them as a genre rather than a medium, but they are simply another way of telling a story. There is a renewal of interest in graphic novels at the moment and so there is a lot of rubbish about as publishers jump on the bandwagon. My praise for comics only applies to the good stuff of course. Herge has rarely been bettered.

More tomorrow. . .


  1. pulpsfromthebothy13 November 2008 at 23:22

    I loved this post Chris! I am ashamed to say that I really have never read very many novels in my time, preferring to read non fiction instead. I know that sounds weird coming from someone who loves comics so much. I have also struggled with history as a subject matter, but through the most unlikely of non fiction titles I have learnt so much about social history, and I am happy to say that I have shaken off a great deal of my resistance - probably a result of uninspiring teachers in my school years! I have a feeling that you might be a Jack Kirby man, am I right?

  2. I am indeed a Jack Kirby man - see tomorrow's post. And I should do a non-fiction list too actually.