Tag Archives: children’s books

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

I’ve just finished reading #49 Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian and it’s a beautiful book. I think it deserved to win the whole show.

When war is declared in 1939, Willie is evacuated from London and sent to stay with Mr Tom, a widower living in a country village. Mr Tom has lived alone for 40 years, and didn’t expect to start childrearing at this late stage. Willie is frightened of the countryside, and worried that Mr Tom will be as strict as his mother. And yet, one way or another, they have to learn to live together.

Just lovely
I couldn’t think of any other books Magorian has written, which sort of surprised me. This is such a beautifully written novel that I feel like all the author’s books should be hits, and I should have read them all. Looking her up, it seems that she hasn’t written much, by the book-a-year standard of other authors, and also writes for younger children.

I don’t know when it was written, but it’s a clever, lovely book. It’s got a mix of happy and sad, rough and smooth. It’s engaging and interesting all the way through, and I treasured the small victories as much as the big ones. It also has an effective sense of perspective, remembering that in an individual life – particularly in an individual childhood – apparently small things, like a bike or a trip, can loom large. That learning and growing isn’t always easy, isn’t always dramatic, but it is always happening.

Let’s talk about The Issues
Given that I’ve read two Jacqueline Wilson novels recently, I’m attuned to noticing when children’s books tackle serious or traumatic issues. Goodnight Mr Tom is set during the Second World War, so it’s not surprising that it deals grief, loss and change. Coincidentally, like Secrets it also tackles child abuse and what parental love really means.

Comparing Goodnight Mr Tom to Secrets, I feel that Mr Tom has much greater depth. It’s a book that I’d be happy to read again, one that I was looking forward to reading after all these years, and one that I’d happily pass on to a child. Secrets is good, but I don’t feel that there’s as much to it. It’s shorter, simpler, and perhaps expects less from its readers. That said, I don’t think that Mr Tom has complex or archaic language in it, although it does have some historical items and situations that aren’t explained. I think it is probably almost as easily accessible as Secrets, as long as the reader isn’t put off by the extra pages.

I would guess that this is a book aimed at and recommended for older children, probably age about 10-12. Willie is nearly 9 when the book opens, but he has a different mix of adult and childlike traits, as children in the 1930s and ’40s had very different responsibilities and restrictions than they do now.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson

Secrets by Jacqueline Wilson

The last Jacqueline Wilson novel on the list, #155 Secrets is the 13th I’ve read, and that’s probably enough.

Treasure and India live just a few streets from each other, but their lives are worlds apart. Treasure’s young and trendy Nan has taken her in, because her mother’s boyfriend hits her. India’s family is crumbling in a different way – her parents can’t seem to stop arguing, and it’s often about money. Both are lonely, and when they meet it’s friendship at first sight. But can they stay together when so many grown ups have other plans?

The diary and Anne Frank
The novel is told through diary entries, with Treasure and India taking it in turns to tell their story. It’s a useful structure, as it allows the reader to see both sides of the story, even before they’ve met. It also lets Wilson tie in the Diary of Anne Frank, which is India’s favourite book. She even mentions Zlata’s Diary, a book I remember reading in school as it was a child’s diary of the war in Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

Bringing in The Diary of Anne Frank is an obvious choice for a book about secrets, and I can see why Wilson would want to guide her readers towards it. I’m not entirely convinced that the gambit works. India is very intense about Anne and her diary, but the rest of the novel never quite shares that passion. I found her attachment disquieting, to be honest. It really seems like she has nothing else in her life, not even any other books.

The back of the book describes this as a ‘novel for older readers’, and talks about the girls sharing ‘their most serious secret ever’. Given this dramatic set up, and the fact that the book starts with Treasure’s step-father sending her to casualty, I expected that the book would be particularly grim. It’s not. I mean, Wilson tackles serious subjects, as she usually does, but it doesn’t need a content warning above and beyond the usual.

I was honestly a little disappointed, thanks to the blurb, as I kept expecting something awful to happen that never really materialized. I realise this isn’t fair, and I think it’s because I’ve read so many of Wilson’s novels. I’m really not the target market and I’ve read a lot of them in quite an artificial way. Although this is a longer novel that most of the other Wilson novels on the list, it felt a bit thin and unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s time for me to read something aimed at adults!

Who is the book for?
Given that Wilson has already addressed the issues in the books in ones aimed (if I remember correctly) at younger readers, there are two reasons that I can see this book being for older – or perhaps more mature – readers. First, it’s longer, and doesn’t have as many illustrations. It’s jumped the line from illustrations every page or two to illuminated chapter headings. Second, it does talk about difficult things, and it also uses the story of Anne Frank. I imagine that a lot of readers will want to go on and read Anne’s diary, which itself is probably a book for older readers. In this context, of course, older readers are probably about 9-11 as most of Wilson’s books are probably aimed at 6-8 year-olds, with some aimed at those just starting to read on their own.

I do struggle to suggest age ranges for children’s books, partly because I don’t have any kids around to experiment on, as most of my friends either live far away or have very young children, and partly because I read so much and so precociously as a child myself. I remember reading The Giver and Bridge to Terabithia (both excellent, highly recommend them) in school when I was in year 6 (about 11), and I think it was around then that I started reading Heinlein, Asimov, Austen and the Brontes. I would already have read James Herriot and had definitely read Libby Purves’ How not to Raise a Perfect Child. (I broadly agreed with her advice, incidentally.)

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson

At #117 Bad Girls is the 13th Jacqueline Wilson novel I’ve read for this challenge, and I think it’s too many. They’re all starting to blur together, and the tears and traumas in this one just felt too familiar.

Mandy is the opposite of a bad girl. Small and dressed in frilly frocks, she looks closer to 7 than her actual age of 10. Since her best friend joined Kim’s clique, Mandy has been the target of all their taunts. She’s lonely until she meets Tanya. At 14, in foster care and separated from her younger siblings, Tanya is happy to have someone to care for. But bad habits are hard to break.

Have I read this book before?
Wilson’s strength is the natural way that she combines issues (foster care, absent parents, shop lifting, bullying) with a plot that children can relate to. Bad Girls is, objectively, a good book. It isn’t preachy, and shows that there can be complicated responses to issues. It never labels the ‘bad girls’ of the title, and juxtaposes two different sorts of ‘badness’ in a way that might make people think, or perhaps be unconsciously less judgmental. So it’s good, and I recommend it.

I did like the emphasis on creativity, particularly drawing and writing, in the story. The rainbow theme helped me notice how much time Wilson’s characters spend making stuff. It’s not just in this novel. Her characters are constantly making things, drawing pictures, dreaming and living in their imagination. It makes drawing, writing, art, dance and similar seem really accessible and achievable. I think it would be encouraging and inspiring, if I were 10.

Have I read this book before?
That said, I feel like I’ve read this book before. The chapters have a gimicky theme (colours of the rainbow this time), the characters all feel familiar. Tanya and the foster family she’s staying with are even in Dustbin Baby, so it’s more than a generic likeness. I struggled to work up any enthusiasm for the novel, and feel like I can’t give a clear review.

Broadly, I think this is a good book for kids age about 10. As with all Wilson’s books, there are challenging issues addressed, so some parents might want to read through it ahead of time. It only took me an hour, so that shouldn’t be much of a chore.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

As part of making 2014 the year of long books, I’ve just finished #25 The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. The Hobbit is not, on its own, a long book but it forms a prologue to #1 The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been informed by at least 2 of my favourite people that The Lord of the Rings means The Whole Trilogy, not just The Fellowship of the Ring, which makes it a very long book indeed.

The Hobbit is a children’s fantasy adventure story. Bilbo Baggins is the hobbit of the title. Hobbits are cosy, tidy creatures with hairy toes who rarely stray far from home. Caught up in an epic quest and taken along by 13 dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, Bilbo finds himself travelling far from home with unlikely companions and even missing a meal or three – a big deal for a hobbit.

I don’t like this book
I realise that a great many people do, and I can sort of see why. The Hobbit reminds me very much of The Magic Faraway TreeTolkien, at least when writing for children, has the same glossy style for his adventures. Nothing very bad happens to a named character, and everything is clearly going to work out in the end. If you’re a true hero, million-to-one chances come off nine times out of ten (as Pratchett describes beautifully in Guards! Guards!, in a section that is lampooning, it turns out, the end of The Hobbit).

The whole time I was reading The Hobbit, I kept looking for depth, and not finding it. The world building is terrible – nothing makes any sense, not the geography, the travel, the supplies, the economy. Despite the fact that the group is usually 15 strong, no one fails to offer them hospitality. A single man, living alone in the woods happily feeds them for half a dozen meals an then kits them out with a pony each to ride, a bow and quiver each, and food for a fortnight. I appreciate that he is a special snowflake of awesome power, but where did all this stuff come from? Who made the bows, and why does he have an arsenal lying around? Who saddled all these ponies? Who made the saddles? And given that this man doesn’t like hurting any animal, where did the leather come from?

Every time they stop, the wealth of a small township is showered over them. As a result, the questers can be heroically unconcerned with their goods, and lose an awful lot of stuff along the way. They never pay for anything, or trade, or do any useful work so why people are so willing to help I really can’t think. Presumably it’s because no one has any memory of last winter or any plans for the next. Everything is in an epic context, and the only events that matter are those that happened a hundred and fifty years earlier.

On race and gender and the working class
Do you know, I’m not sure that there’s a named female character anywhere in this book? I’m not sure there’s even a female speaking part, which is impressive given how much attention is paid to food. There aren’t any workers, either, unless you count the goblins and the dwarves. The entire story is that of some rich dudes going on a quest to get some more money, and getting a bunch of ordinary folk killed along the way. 

I’m also really not happy with how the different races are portrayed in this story. Even if we assume that Tolkien invented them all whole cloth, and that hobbits aren’t supposed to be one sector of humanity, elves another and goblins a third, it’s still pretty horrific. Entire races are either Practically Saints, Quite Good or Really Bad. If you’re at all bad, you have to be killed. In the book, the elves and the goblins have been at war for a very long time, and I can see why because the elves go and hunt the goblins. When they’ve nothing better to do, they hunt gobilns. When goblins have nothing better to eat, they eat elves. Now, out of those, which is worse? Hunting sentient creatures for food or for fun?

Moreover, everyone eats sentient animals, which I find horrific. Sure, dragons eat humans, but humans eat sheep and it turns out they can talk, although not in a human language, and wait at table. This book is an ethical mess, and I really can’t see that any of the characters come of out of it looking good.

It remind me of the sort of games I played as a child. The kind that’s described so well in Swallows and Amazons, where it’s clear who the main characters are (the real people pretending to be other people) and everyone else is less than a breath on the wind, as real or disposable as you like. The Hobbit is like two children playing “I kill a goblins with a single blow with my magic sword” gets the reply “well I kill two, no, ten, no a thousand goblins with my, um, with my mighty hammer”.

I didn’t enjoy The Hobbit and I don’t expect to read it again. That said, it was an interesting exercise as it so clearly provides a background to other works I’ve experienced and even love. Pratchett clearly knows this book well, and reacts to it in several of his works. A lot of roleplaying games and roleplayers act like they’re in The Hobbit, where certain creatures are bad and can be killed at will, and I suspect one of the origins of that is this series. Although, to be fair to Tolkien, mass slaughter is common in SF novels and action films too. But just because the other kids are all doing it, doesn’t mean it’s cool, OK?

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Another children’s classic, #57 Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was written in 1930 and set just a year earlier. It paints an idyllic picture of a childhood holiday to the Lake District, which is in the north-west of England. There’s no sign of the financial troubles brewing or any grief left from the First World War. This England is, indeed, a green and pleasant land.

Swallows and Amazons follows the summer adventures of four siblings: John, Susan, Titty and Roger, on holiday with their mother and two-year-old sister Vicky in the Lake District. After they get permission from their father, away at sea, they are allowed to sail the small boat, Swallow, on the lake and camp on the deserted island nearby.

Then and now
Perhaps the most striking thing, as an adult reading the book, is the amount of freedom the kids have. They go off to camp on an island in the lake for about two weeks, with no adult in hailing distance. They’re expected to feed themselves, which includes cooking over an open fire. They sleep in tents on hay mattresses, and the tents are lit with candles. They row or sail on the lake and swim and bathe in it with no life preservers or any supervision. Roger, it turns out, can’t swim more than three strokes without putting his foot on the bottom.

It seems ferociously dangerous. It sounds like the sort of adventure that gets ill-prepared adults helicoptered down from Snowdon today, and the kids don’t have anyone to yell for if something goes wrong. I spent the whole book with my heart in my mouth, somehow expecting the narrative to slip, reality to kick in and them all to be drowned. But of course, it’s a novel (and the start of a series) so nothing too terrible can happen.

I can’t tell if I’m overly cautious or if their parents and society are just very relaxed about the whole thing. I can’t tell how old the kids are. I find it hard in books of this era, as teenagerdom doesn’t seem to have been invented. Children are children until, suddenly, they’re adults. You see the boundaries more in Agatha Christie novels than in children’s stories. I would peg John and Susan as being around 12, but they could just as well be 17 and 15, or 15 and 13, which would make more sense from a safety point of view. Roger sounds like he’s about 6.

Moreover, I come from a mountainous, cold place, where water can be deep, dark and dangerously cold even in summer, so falling in isn’t as trivial. Also, I don’t sail at all, and don’t know the Lake District, so I really don’t have a clear idea of what the real risks are. In any case, their father consents with a cavalier telegram:

Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown

and the children go off to begin their adventure. And what an adventure it is…

Child’s play
One of the things I did like about the book was that both boys and girls muck in. On the Swallow, John is the oldest, so he’s the captain. On the Amazon, Nancy is the oldest, so she’s the captain. Susan does the cooking, as first mate, Nancy doesn’t, as captains don’t. Titty is the second sister. In a Blyton book she would be relegated into obscurity, but Ransome gives her a strong and distinct character, perhaps the most enjoyable of all.

All the children have active imaginations, and the camping expedition is written as one long game of pretend. With the boat as the centre of their play, they’re castaways, pirates, Robinson Crusoe, a war vessel and more by turns, sometimes changing plot from minute to minute. It’s a beautiful thing to read. I remember, as a kid, being caught up for days in some complicated and detailed plot that my brother and/or a friend and I invented. We had one thing where the beds were spaceships that involved dozens of tiny bits of paper as currency, supplies and goods, and toys as crew and passagers and… it’s all very boring to a passerby, unless it’s well written. Ransome has the knack, and makes the fantasy within the fantasy and the reality within the fantasy blend together beautifully. It’s a very well crafted book, and in that sense reminds me of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was fascinating to read as a glimpse into a completely different world. I imagine it would be like someone reading about some of the stupid things my brother and I did (entirely safely) on skis, or how his scout troop, age about 10, went camping in the winter, without tents. (They dug snow holes and were all quite snug.) I do recommend the book. If nothing else, it will give a kid some great new ideas for let’s pretend.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl

I have a strong memory of reading #169 The Witches by Roald Dahl when I was a child. I remember reading it in a friend’s car, and I remember being so scared I couldn’t finish it. The friend in question moved away half way through year four, so that puts a fairly narrow time frame on it. It’s one of the few books I read when I was a kid that I remember vividly but didn’t reread a lot.

The Witches tells the story of a brave boy and his grandma. After his parents are both killed in a tragic accident, the boy goes to live with his grandma, and they comfort each other. She lives in Norway, where there are many witches, and warns him to be wary of them, telling him how to spot them. Faced with the problem, the pair eventually come up with an unusual solution.

A Roald Dahl classic
The Witches is probably one of Dahl’s best-known books. It’s got all his favourite elements: a brave child, weird magic, absent parents and a fight with evil. The language is clear and simple without being condescending. In The Witches, Dahl treats the children in his audience like grown ups. More than that – he expects them to know and understand things that grown ups have forgotten, put aside or dismiss.

The edition I have is, to the best of my knowledge, the one I remember reading when I was about seven. It’s beautifully and very evocatively illustrated by Quentin Blake. I really do think the pictures are an important part of the story. They bring the characters to life in a particular way, giving them a form. I do wonder if some of Dahl’s books would be a little sparse without the pictures but perhaps that’s because I’ve only known and loved them this way.

Horror for children
As I mentioned, I remember being scared by The Witches, and I can’t imagine that Dahl wrote the book without being aware that he was writing a scary story. I have mixed feelings about scary stories for kids – and for adults, too, for that matter. In On Writing, Stephen King divides horror into, I think, three categories. I usually find that two are enough: gore and ghosts. In my definitions, gore is a story where the violence is the horror. I don’t like stories like this, as I find that the audience is usually expected to be enjoying the bloodshed, and I don’t. Stephen King’s Under the Dome fell into this category for me, as do a lot of mainstream horror and action films. 

Ghosts, on the other hand, are things that are scary because they aren’t real, but their presented as plausible. The Witches is this kind of horror, and it does it very well. I find that this sort of book can be fun to read as long as, to paraphrase Pratchett, the book shows you that the monsters can be killed.

As an aside, I thought about adding a third category, which is people. I’ve encountered a number of stories where the truly scary element was the human one. One example of this, sticking with King as he’s clearly a horror writer, was Rose Madder, where the monster is entirely human. A woman is on the run from her husband, as he’s violent and likely to kill her. The scary part is that there’s no way to deal with him, without invoking a supernatural element. In this case, it’s an inverse of the ghosts theme: the monsters are real, and, in the real world, the magic sword doesn’t work and they can’t be killed.

My point is that The Witches is deliberately scary in a plausible way. After reading the book, it would be all too possible to start seeing witches in real life (they look almost exactly like ordinary human women). As the book makes it clear that adults (even parents) can’t be expected to recognise a witch or to save a child when they’re in peril, it’s a pretty scary set of ideas.

I think it’s a good book, well written and effective – I’m just not sure that the intended effect, a good scare, will be enjoyable for every child. Perhaps one to rate PG or a 12A, although the reading level is probably first or second grade.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

I’ve just finished #150 Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz and I really don’t think I have anything new to say about this, having posted about Stormbreaker and Point Blanc, the first two books in the Alex Rider series. Still, it seems fitting that I posted about the first one during last year’s Children’s Book Week and I’m finishing the third (and the last on the list) as this year’s CBW draws to a close.

Alex Rider is just 14, and yet he’s already been drawn into working for MI6. Going undercover, he foils plots to take over or destroy the world, aided and abetted by a series of quirky gadgets and his almost superhuman abilities. Skeleton Key draws on motifs established in earlier books but works well as a stand alone. In this story, Alex faces his toughest challenge yet: will his longing for an ordinary life be his undoing?

Let’s talk about spoilers
I try to write these reviews without any spoilers. This is difficult as different people find different details spoilery. Broadly, I try not to reveal anything that isn’t on the back of the book (you’ll find quite a lot of spoilers there, sadly) or that would reduce the suspense, prematurely untangle a mystery or otherwise ruin the ending or the good bits in the middle.

The Alex Rider books are difficult for me because on the one hand, the broad arcs are quite predictable but the details are not. This is to Horowitz’s credit, in a sense, because I do like to be surprised. However, I find the Alex Rider books to be like listening to a toddler tell you about their plans for the future. In both cases, the technology is unbelievable and the whole thing hangs together with only a thin thread joining it. I daren’t pull to hard on any one element in the story as the plot and locations jump around so much that simply mentioning one exploit could strip the previous pages of tension. Plus, I can’t figure out how to mention one exploit since I can’t really explain why Alex is in any of these situations or why he reacts as he does except that he is both astonishingly well trained and doesn’t always think things through.

How do you like your heroes?
Alex is pretty near perfect, except that he’s sort of intolerable, and I just don’t care. I appreciate that I’m not the target market – I may get K to read these as he was once a teenage boy and still likes films where stuff blows up – but I’m not that interested in perfection of either gender. It tends to be stultifying and entirely context driven. For example, Alex seems to be able to context switch flawlessly, operating smoothly as a junior spy or a school kid, but either set of behaviour would be completely inappropriate in the other environment. Another story with this character in would be the one where the child pushed too far too fast by demanding adults turns to drink to drown their perceived imperfections and failures. I’d believe that story, although I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.

Alex is perfectly suited to handle everything the world throws at him, and the world only throws things at him that he can handle. This is a real risk with any long running hero if their competence is repeatedly tested in so many outlandish ways. The Harry Potter series were at risk of this too, and dealt with it well, I think, by ‘going dark’ and throwing things at Harry he couldn’t properly handle and having him react to failure and loss. Alex, at this stage, is unformed. He is a vessel for his experiences and rarely seems to act on any emotion. He gets annoyed with his handlers but that’s about it. I’d be interested to know if he develops over the following books, but I really don’t think I can be bothered to read them.

All in all, this was another book in the vein of the previous novels, and I would recommend it to Bond fans and action movie fans who don’t usually like reading. The pace, plotting and devices are very similar. That said, I haven’t read any of the Bond novels so I may be doing Flemming a disservice with the comparison.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz

Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz

Although #105 Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz is book two in the series, I liked it better than book one, Stormbreaker. I think it’s because I was better able to suspend my disbelief, having been forewarned by book one.

The Alex Rider series was, according to the author, inspired by Flemming’s James Bond, and even I could spot nods to the films (I haven’t read the books, although I’ve been told they’re well worth a look). Alex is about 15, and only works for MI6 occasionally as even spies have qualms about using children to do their dirty work. In this case, they need someone to go undercover in a school, and discover if something truly dreadful is afoot.

Totally implausible
In the style of Bond films or The Thirty-Nine StepsPoint Blanc focuses on creating a dashing adventure, not a realistic one. I didn’t really believe anything that happened could actually happen. My particular nitpick was a snowboarding scene. I’m a skier, not a boarder, but I think the best riders in the world would have found the course described a challenge in the circumstances, and Rider had only been boarding three times before and never on anything harder than a blue. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much if I say that using an ironing board as a snowboard is unlikely to work well. Having tried sledging on a whole number of things, snow can be, contrary to popular opinion, surprisingly sticky, particularly if it’s not compacted down or fresh powder. Honestly, I think Alex would have broken his neck, if he wasn’t already killed in an earlier stunt. 

Perhaps because book one had established quite a few of the Big Lies, I found Point Blanc easier to read than Stormbreaker. I’d already accepted that Alex was a teenage whizkid and that normal things wouldn’t happen very often, so it was easier to go with the flow. I’ll be interested to see what book three, Skeleton Key, on the list at #150, is like – I’ll probably read it next week. I haven’s started it yet, as I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep the two distinct in my head.

Enjoyable adventure
I don’t think I’ll buy book four but I did enjoy reading Point Blanc. It’s pure fantasy, and once I go into the swing of it, I enjoyed it. It was a very quick read (a couple of hours, maybe less) and a pleasant one. I found Alex quite annoying in book one, but rather liked him in this.

The book is aimed at teenagers, and it doesn’t contain anything that a 14-year-old won’t have seen on television. That said, the book does feature implausible consequences, severe risk taking, guns, violence and death. These are all treated lightly, which you may not think is appropriate – but if you’re watching Bond films, or any action films really, with your kids, you’ll struggle to ban Alex Rider without feeling like a hypocrite. Women’s roles are minimal and I’m not sure there were any people of colour in the book. It’s very much a boy’s own adventure for the computer game age, and as long as readers don’t want to emulate Alex, they should be fine. If you do want to copy Alex Rider: don’t. Real snow is hard and full of rocks. Real cranes aren’t that easy to operate and real trains will kill you if you hit them when they’re moving.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

I didn’t like #9 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis when I was a kid. I read most of the Narnia books eventually but probably only once or twice each, simply because they were there. So unlike many of the books I’ve reread for this challenge, I was pleasantly surprised. The book wasn’t bad – problematic, of course – but didn’t seem to justify my strong dislike at the time.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of four children. Evacuated during the Second World War, they find themselves in a mysterious old house. Exploring, they come across a magical wardrobe, which acts as a door to another realm. Narnia, the land through the wardrobe, is a magical place full of talking animals, dryads and magic, where giants walk the land and people can be turned to stone in an instant. The children must fight to break the land free from its 100 year winter.

Unusually, I remember reading the Narnia Chronicles. We only had odd copies, sort of passing through, but my brother had a friend whose parents were friends with my parents. If they’d had a child older than my brother, it might have been perfect. As it was, I was often bored at their house. I don’t remember them having other kids’ books – probably those were kept in the boys’ rooms – but the Narnia ones were on the landing, where I could hide and read. They were surrounded by adult books, second shelf from the bottom on a white floor-to-ceiling book shelf at the top of the stairs.

I didn’t like the books much to start with, and I don’t, having reread this one, know why. I did like The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew was the next best one. Otherwise, I wasn’t interested, and I went off them entirely when, age about 12, I discovered that they were a Christian allegory, with Aslan standing in for Jesus. Learning that made me feel like I’d been duped.

The religious elements also bother me as an adult. Everyone ‘just knows’ that Aslan is special, and good and evil are determined pretty much entirely by gut feeling. You don’t need to see the traitor betray their friends because you’ll get a gut feeling. You can tell if someone has been tainted by evil by looking into their eyes. I think this is horrific, for two reasons. One, it suggests that if you get a strong bad feeling about someone, they are evil. Two, it completely excludes anyone who doesn’t feel a rapture walking into a church, suggesting that if you don’t, this religion is not for you. What I’m saying, I guess, is that as propaganda it seems poorly aimed and poorly launched.

The the sexism, the talking animals and the real problem
As The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, it’s no great surprise that it’s sexist in an Enid Blyton way. The girls go on all the adventures, and step back when one person needs to fight something and step forward when one person needs to be tender or weep. Lewis says things like “battles are ugly when women fight”, as though they were so pretty when it’s all boys together.

The talking animals are inconsistent, as is typical, but more worryingly the magical creatures are used to a line between good and evil, putting some races on one side and some on the other. It’s a lazy, racist thing to do. It’s deterministic, as well – the villain is villainous because “There isn’t a drop of real human blood in the Witch…that’s why she’s bad all through.” She’s half Jinn (descended from Adam’s first wife, Lilith, apparently) and half giant. So she must be bad. Given it’s apparently as inevitable as a rock falling downwards (more so, I’m sure there are levitation spells in Narnia) it seems unfair to punish her so severely.

But none of this is unexpected, given the age and religious overtones. The real problem, to my mind, with this book is that there’s no strong positive to balance these flaws. All the characters are a bit wet. The villain is villainous, but ineffectual. Aslan is omnipotent. One child is pegged as evil from the get go, and does moderately evil (thoughtless) things. The others are good and do good things. Everything is, as predicted ‘finally defeated before bedtime’. At no point did I wonder if the ending would be other than happy. At no point did I think any of the characters were in real peril. Plus, they don’t ever seem to change, except through a magic conversion. There’s no growth or character development even across the series, if I remember correctly. The book just isn’t that good, although Narnia is an interesting world to visit.

I’m not sorry I read the book. It only took an hour to get through the whole thing, so it wasn’t a big investment. But I don’t really recommend it.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

I can’t find my copy of #134 George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl, so I was thrilled to find a copy when I was in the UK recently. I remember it being one of my childhood favourites. It’s probably my second favourite Dahl book, after Matilda

George’s Marvellous Medicine tells the story of George, who lives with his parents and his very grumpy grandmother on his parents’ farm. One day, as an act of revenge, he decides to replace his grandmother’s medicine with a concoction of his own, with astonishing results.

Fabulous story
I don’t know why I love this book so much. I think it’s because the book is gleeful and joyful throughout. Pretty much everyone in the book – and there aren’t many characters – spends a large part of the story in a state of highly pleased excitement. It’s like reading a successful birthday party, where everyone laughs and dances and enjoys themselves. 

It’s also a quick, fun read, and well illustrated by Quentin Blake. It’s a story about pushing boundaries, crossing the line of polite behaviour, and reaping the unpredictable consequences. The story is imbued with Dahl’s trademark zaniness and wild invention. In this case, it works, in my opinion.

Entirely unsafe
Like all of Dahl’s books, there’s a grim undertone and if you think about some of the things that happen seriously, you’d get a rather different feel than the jaunty rollicking ride Dahl conducts you on.

The thing I found most shocking about the book is that George’s mixture is made of some really lethal ingredients, and yet that’s fine. It has horse medication, anti-freeze and household cleaners in. It’s properly poisonous, and that seems like a terrible example to be setting small children. I’m at that stage where I haven’t been a kid myself for a long while, and yet my friends mostly have toddlers, so I really don’t know how likely a curious 8-year-old is to mimic George’s concoctions. I know I didn’t, but then I wasn’t exactly a whirlwind child.

I really enjoyed reading George’s Marvellous Medicine again. I don’t think I’ve read it since the 1990s, and I probably wouldn’t have reread at all if it weren’t for this challenge. I grumble about quite a lot of books on the Big Read list, but I think it’s worth doing for the new books I try (even if I don’t love them) and the old loves I revisit.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.