At the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards


I was hugely fortunate to be invited to attend the award ceremony of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards on Monday. This is the UK’s major award for the best in children’s and young adult’s fiction, with the Carnegie Medal being given for the writing of a novel, and the Kate Greenaway Medal, named after the famous Victorian children’s book illustrator, being given for the best illustrated picture book or novel. A small group of students and I have been ‘shadowing’ the awards at school, meeting at lunchtimes to discuss the shortlisted books. What’s fantastic about this award is that the books are chosen from across a range of genres, and so being part of a reading group of this nature means that you have to read outside of your comfort zone. I know many adults wouldn’t touch young adult literature with a barge pole, and before I became a teacher I would have been one of them, but reading the shortlist for these awards has certainly challenged my prejudices and proven that there is just as much complexity, beauty, power and literary merit to be found in books written for younger readers as there is in books written for adults. Whether it’s romance, friendship, fantasy, horror, history or teen angst, the shortlisted books cover all manner of issues, time periods, cultures and genders, and my students and I often found ourselves having to tackle a novel we would normally have left firmly on the shelf thanks to it not fitting into our perception of what makes a good book. Most of the time, we were surprised at how much we enjoyed a book that we had assumed we would hate, and this taught us all the valuable lesson that holding onto uninformed prejudices can lead to you missing out on a considerable amount of pleasure. The lessons reading can teach you are truly endless!


As part of our reading group activities, we wrote reviews and made them into our own mini magazine, which we entered into a competition that won us front row seats at the award ceremony. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet all of the authors, and we were made to feel very special and important, especially as the ceremony organisers and the writers emphasised how much they valued the views of young readers and expressed how vital it is to children’s development for them to have access to books. Creativity and imagination are increasingly being stamped out in our education system, and to hear how passionate these writers are about ensuring children are provided with adventure and inspiration through the written word, challenging them to view their world from a different perspective and resist the drive to conform to the increasingly limited expectations and pressures of society, was marvellous. As something of an idealist who would quite gladly let my students spend all day reading under a tree than learn spellings, this was music to my ears, and I loved watching the eyes of my little cherubs light up with pleasure as they mixed with the crowds at the ceremony and got to speak to the writers they so admired. It was such a joy to them to be able to make a connection with the people who wrote the words they had loved reading, and they all came away inspired and even more enthused about literature, which couldn’t have been a more perfect outcome.


The winner of the Carnegie Medal, Tanya Landman, is a wonderful, engaging speaker who won for her novel Buffalo Soldier, about a young African-American girl who disguises herself as a man and fights in the Civil War. It explores themes of what it means to be free, and what it means to forge an identity for yourself in a world that views you as inferior. My students loved it and found it inspiring, especially as most of the girls they read about these days are rather insipid creatures who are depicted as only caring about clothes and boys. It wasn’t my favourite from the shortlist, I must admit, despite being a very worthy winner; I loved Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Middle of Nowhere, another novel with a strong female heroine, this time a young Australian girl, Comity, living in the outback in the 19th century, having to battle with a grief stricken father, an abusive lodger and the persecution of her best friend, a young aboriginal boy. I thought it was brilliantly inventive, moving and educational; I haven’t read many books set in Australia before, and I loved learning more about its culture and history. The winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal was William Grill, who became the youngest winner of the award at the age of just 25. He wrote and illustrated Shackleton’s Journey, a picture book retelling of the story of explorer Ernest Shackleton, and his inventive and powerful treatment of a life that has long been overshadowed by his more successful contemporaries is brought beautifully to life. I picked up a copy and was instantly enchanted, and was very much moved by Grill’s speech, where he said he wanted children to take away the message that, like Shackleton, they need never be afraid of failure, because the only true failure is in failing to explore at all. I love that there is so much brilliant literature available for children and young people, and that these writers are being rewarded for their work in opening children’s eyes to a world of magic and possibility that helps to mould their characters and provide them with inspiration for their futures. There has been lots of talk of late about the book being dead, and that younger generations, with their reliance on computers, no longer see the point in literature nor have the attention span to enjoy it. I don’t think this is true at all; the award ceremony proved to me that children’s literature is alive and well, and is just as vital now as it has always been.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


What is there to say about Wolf Hall that hasn’t already been said? I am, as always, very late to the party, and am really quite cross with myself for putting off reading it for so long. I was daunted by its length, by its covering a period of history with which I am not excessively familiar, and by its use of present tense narration – a device I normally can’t stand, for no particular reason. Obviously as soon as I was past the first chapter, all of these things ceased to be a problem and I was well and truly absorbed in the world of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. Hilary Mantel is actually a genius; her use of a range of different narrative styles; free indirect discourse, reported speech and indirect discourse, all combine to make a wonderfully immediate and fresh sounding narrative voice that keeps the reader inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell while also allowing an insight into the hearts and minds of the many and various characters who people his world. The language she uses is also different to most historical fiction; it is handled with a deft, light touch; the syntax is only slightly altered, the vocabulary thoughtfully adapted, to create a realistic sense of the past while also ensuring that the dialogue remains crisp, vital and refreshingly modern. The novel is therefore peopled by passionate, emotional, cruel, loving, violent, aggressive and occasionally foul-mouthed creatures who would certainly not feel out of place on the streets of London in 2015, though are still very much rooted in the Tudor era. This ability to bridge the gap between history and modernity, to recreate the past without resorting to formulaic or laboured use of antiquated vocabulary, is really quite extraordinary, and I can’t think of another historical novel like it.

I don’t know enough about Cromwell to comment on the accuracy of Mantel’s portrayal; I know that he is a divisive figure, maligned and admired in equal measure, but Mantel’s interpretation of him is warm and sensitive, rendering him a magnetic force for both readers and characters alike. I was absolutely fascinated by the journey he took from the mean streets of Putney to the private chambers of Henry VIII. The forensic exploration of what kind of a person you have to be: what measure of courage and tenacity and intelligence it takes to drag yourself up from the cobbles of your father’s blacksmith’s yard to be within touching distance of your King is what makes this tale of a man dead for half a millennium so timeless and so utterly relevant to contemporary readers. It is the story of someone utterly self-made, utterly self-reliant, and utterly self-assured; someone who overcomes the most awful of childhoods and the most profound of griefs in order to manoeuvre themselves into a position to make a difference to the world around them, and for that quality alone, aside from all of the wrangles over Henry and Anne, it is worth reading. It is almost magical in its magnificence; Mantel weaves such a mesmerising web that it is hard to extricate yourself from the world she creates, and I could barely drag myself away from its pages. Even if you think historical novels aren’t for you, you have no interest in the Tudor period, or normally run a mile from doorstep length novels, you need to put your prejudices to one side and give this a go. It’s an unforgettable reading experience, and I already can’t wait to get stuck into Bring up the Bodies.

Very Exciting News

tea or books

A couple of weeks ago, the lovely Simon at Stuck in Book asked me if I fancied partnering with him to create a podcast. As this seemed like a very exciting prospect, and something I would never have had the slightest clue about creating if I was doing it by myself, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. What could be more fun than chatting about books, and chatting about those books with Simon, who is hilarious and happens to (mostly) share my taste in literature?!

We recorded our very first podcast last week, and it’s now live and accessible via Stuck in a Book, right here!

As I am an actual Luddite, I am going to need to spend some time working out how to post it directly onto Book Snob, as there are many things involving hosting sites and other technological words I don’t understand that I need to navigate in order to so, but I hope I will have that sorted soon! Simon is also in the process of getting it onto iTunes, because he is far more competent than I am.

I’ve been blogging for six years now so it’s really exciting to have a new avenue of communication to explore. Simon and I are very keen to get your feedback and ideas – we’re still tinkering around with our equipment and such, and if anyone has any technological advice for me on posting to my blog, that would be much appreciated – but we hope you’ll really enjoy the concept as well as the opportunity to hear our dulcet tones rather than just reading our writing!

We’ve called our podcast ‘Tea or Books’, and the ‘or’ is key, as the premise of each podcast is going to be us debating two book-related topics. We like the idea of having a discussion around a theme or idea, followed by an author grudge match. So, our first podcast tackles the issues of books in translation v books written in English set abroad, and Emily v Charlotte Bronte. We are very open to suggestions for future topics, so please do comment below with any ideas!

I hope you’ll enjoy the first episode – please let us know what you think, and if you have anything to add to what we have discussed!

Down House

IMG_0444 IMG_0433 Last weekend I finally made a long-intended trip to Down House, which is nestled in the tiny Kent village of Downe. Charles Darwin and his wife Emma moved to the house shortly after their marriage, and it was the centre of Charles’ scientific as well as family life until his death. It’s been a museum dedicated to the memory of Charles Darwin since the 1920s, and now it’s managed by English Heritage. The downstairs of the house has been meticulously restored to show the rooms as the Darwins would have known them, including Darwin’s study, where he wrote On the Origin of Species, and the beautiful garden facing drawing room where the family spent most of their time, and that features an amazing grand piano that I was itching to play. Upstairs all of the rooms that once housed the family’s bedrooms and the children’s classroom have been converted into an exhibition space, where you can learn about Darwin’s scientific discoveries as well as the life of the family. I found it absolutely fascinating to see the actual specimens that he brought back on the Beagle, as well as his field notebooks filled with tiny copperplate handwriting, both of which provided Darwin with the inspiration for his ideas about evolution. Alongside these extraordinary relics of one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history are more personal and touching mementoes of family life, demonstrating how Darwin was just as much a father and husband as he was a scientist. IMG_0434 Charles, Emma and their children adored living at Down, and it’s easy to see why. The house itself is light, airy and spacious; they clearly didn’t sign up to the Victorian decorating manuals that advocated rooms stuffed with hideous mahogany furniture and aspidistras. There are beautiful views over the gardens and surrounding countryside from every window, which is what attracted the Darwins to Down House in the first place; having space in which to walk and enjoy the natural world was enormously important to Darwin. The gardens were an essential part of his work too, as he was forever conducting experiments and observations in the grounds. The greenhouse functioned as a laboratory where he could study how plants were pollinated, and he spent years studying the habits of domestic species such as pigeons and earthworms, which his children delighted in helping him with. Suffering with ill-health for much of his adult life, Darwin rarely left Down House and it really did become his entire world; the great and good of the Victorian intelligentsia were frequent visitors, as were members of the local community, but the majority of Darwin’s time was spent with his wife and children, to whom he was devoted. The house was, by all accounts, a lively, fun and loving place, where the children were free to roam at will and everyone, down to the lowest servant, had an involvement in the scientific discoveries being made in Darwin’s study. IMG_0441 IMG_0460 I took a course on Nineteenth Century Culture at university, which sparked my interest in all things Victorian, and Darwin’s writings were a key element of my studies. I have therefore long been fascinated by him and the way in which his discoveries caused Victorians to change the way they viewed their world and their place within it, and it was such a joy to be able to experience the surroundings that inspired Darwin so deeply throughout his life. I love how quintessentially Victorian it is that such seismic ideas were germinated in this tranquil, unassuming rural backwater! If you too fancy walking in Darwin’s footsteps, it’s actually fairly easy to get to Down House from central London, as these days Downe village is part of the London Borough of Bromley and is in travel card zone 6, so you can use your Oyster card to get the train to Bromley South or Orpington, and then hop on a local bus up to the village. If you want to pack a little more into your day, the beautiful 13th century church of St Mary at Downe is well worth a stop, as the churchyard is filled with Darwin and Wedgwood family graves. Persephone Books fans might also be interested to know that Downe’s neighbouring village is Cudham, where poor Harriet Staunton, whose story is so hauntingly told in Elizabeth Jenkins’ novel Harriet, lived with her abusive husband. Plus, it’s a very short hop down to Westerham from Downe, where you will find Chartwell, home of Winston Churchill. There’s just so much to see in sunny Kent!

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop by Gladys Mitchell


My good friend and fellow blogger Darlene made a visit to the UK from Canada last week, and it was lovely to have the chance to catch up with her in London. We had dinner in a restaurant on Charing Cross Road, which obviously meant that it would be silly for us not to pop into the second hand bookshops that were literally right next door. I fully intended on not buying anything, because I will be moving shortly, and goodness knows I have enough books to shift already, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that I can never resist a Green Penguin paperback, especially one with a ridiculous title, and so for a few pennies, Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop found its way into my bag. As luck would have it, I had neglected to bring a book with me to read on the train (because I am still wading my way through Wolf Hall and it is too heavy to lug around) and so I started reading on my way home. I was instantly charmed by the period detail such as the terrible slang ‘it’s a bally nuisance, old boy’, the kleptomaniac vicar, the formidable matriarch fallen on hard times and the rather Madame Arcati-esque eccentric local crime solver, Mrs Bradley, and, though the plot was clearly going to be ridiculous, involving more unlikely coincidences than you could shake a stick at, I knew I was going to enjoy every minute. There really is nothing like a bit of harmless vintage crime fiction when you fancy an undemanding read.

In the absurdly named village of Wandles Parva, nestled in the rolling countryside of deepest Devonshire, Rupert Sethleigh, the village squire, mysteriously disappears. Staying with him is his shifty young cousin, Jim Redsey, who insists that Rupert has gone to America, but no one believes this for a second, especially not Mrs Bryce Harringay, Rupert and James’ overbearing aunt, who is also staying at the manor with her son Aubrey. When a headless dismembered body is found hanging in the local butcher’s shop window a couple of days later, the assumption has to be made that the body belongs to Rupert, but with a wide cast of characters with plenty of reasons to kill Rupert hanging around, finding a solution to his murder won’t be easy. Especially when a skull is found and then mysteriously disappears, young detectives Aubrey and the vicar’s pretty daughter Felicity turn detective and find all sorts of odd shenanigans going on in the woods, and Rupert Sethleigh’s lawyer reveals that he was just about to cut Jim Redsey out of his will. In between all of this sleuthing, there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy the odd tennis party and charming seaside excursion, transporting the reader wonderfully to a world with a gentler pace of life, where no one seems to actually have a job and the summer goes on forever. Just what you need when you’re drowning in exam marking!

I love the fact that these Green Penguins are so of their time, and provide a fascinating insight into the life of the leisured classes of their period. None of the ones I’ve read have been set anywhere other than leafy middle class enclaves, where everyone has a flower-filled drawing room with french windows opening onto the lawn, a library and a tennis court, and social life revolves around the vicarage, the tennis club and evening cocktail parties. Perky maids are the vessels of a mine of useful information, the vicar’s daughter is always lithe, beautiful and unappreciated, and everyone over a certain age is either eccentric or odious. In any other type of novel, these stereotypes would be unforgivable, but somehow, in crime fiction, they work. This is humanity drawn with broad brush strokes; the characters are recognisable and amusing but lack the individuality and complexity expected of a more literary novel, meaning that they become less realistic and so emotionally engaging. This allows for the necessary degree of detachment in the reader that is required when reading crime fiction; you can’t allow yourself to like people who might end up being murderers, after all! If you gave me one of the modern crime writers to read, I wouldn’t like it; I find them all very dark and depressing, because it’s too close to the often sad reality of the world we live in and therefore not escapist at all. However, give me a gentle caper around a village peopled with vicars and eccentric old ladies who are trying to find the murderer of a wicked cad who deserved everything he got, and I’d be delighted. If you ever find a Green Penguin, snap it up. And you might also want to check out the British Library collection of vintage crime novels that are being republished with lovely covers; they’re a bit hit and miss in my experience, but always entertaining nonetheless.