A wholesome and necessary thing*

A wholesome and necessary thing*

Mr Bookwagon and I have been reading up a storm. Super Thursday, October 5th, was followed by a slightly less super Thursday (12th) and, this week, a slip of a slightly super Thursday; the Bookwagon trolley is full of ‘must read’ new books.

I had the good fortune to teach last week in a school that necessitated a 45 minute drive each morning and evening. I began to relax into the journey, and look forward to the changing scenery. Many years of darkening mornings, misted windscreens and a packed seasonal work and home schedule had me dreading autumn.  However, with a change of career, something has lifted. It’s aligned to a year where our only travelling has been within Britain. I’ve been reminded of the awe I felt when I first came to this country, when my sister-in-law’s generous parents insisted upon and supported my explorations- particularly South-West England, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Sussex, Kent and Wales. I was dumbstruck by the beauty of these areas, and again, when I travelled north, Suffolk, Shropshire, Cumbria and to Scotland.

Mr Bookwagon took delivery of ‘The Lost Words’ by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton). As a keen British birder, Mr Bookwagon was offered the first opportunity to read the book, although I had heard the ‘buzz’ about it, read Jackie Morris’s blog, heard its writer, academician Robert Macfarlane, explain its initiative on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme.

Jackie Morris had been contacted by Robert Macfarlane to make a children’s book offering meanings and images for twenty words from the natural world erased from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. They were considered no longer relevant, no longer within ‘the current frequency of words in daily language of children‘.

The result, The Lost Words , is one of the most wonderful books I have ever encountered. It is breath-taking. From its lush gold lustred pages, to proud A3 stature, this book is a monument. It defies a categorisation; it is not a children’s book, a natural book, a poetry book, a picture book – it is a testimony to all that is free, awesome and wild in our world.

Together, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created a brave book composed of swirling verse, with each of the twenty subjects announced as an illustrative acrostic containing tear-jerking, spring sampling language. So a conker is announced as a ‘cabinet maker, could you craft me a conker?‘ An ‘i’ included in magpie is- ‘interrupt, interject, intercept, intervene!’ A kingfisher is declared a ‘the colour giver, fire bringer, flame flicker, river’s quiver.

Each creature or object is announced in a declarative illustration of its name’s letters, before a glorious page of illustrative text alongside a single portrait image. To conclude each entry is a double page painting. It is almost like the most luscious dessert Versailles could contemplate.

Bramble, bluebell- Lost in the depths, drowned in the blue’, an ‘air eating’ weasel, a shape shifting, heart stopping otter, newts who are ‘kings of the pond, lions of the duckweed, dragons of the water’.

I am alight with this book, this treasure trove of magic, yet…. it follows a week of teaching, a week of outdoor shoes, padded overcoats, jumpers, fleeces, holding hands in safe columns, of children who have never picked up feathers for ‘fear of touching dirt.’ They are not exceptional. A National Trust survey in 2016 discovered that while 96% of parents thought ‘it important that children had a connection with nature and playing outdoors was important‘, children play outside for just over four hours a week, compared to their parents’ 8.2 hours. A poll last year, sponsored by Unilever, undertaken by Sir Ken Robinson, discovered that 1/10 children play in wild spaces only, that 3/4 of British children spend less time outside than prison inmates – ‘many children don’t get to be outdoors in a natural environment in any regular or meaningful way.‘ United Nations’ guidelines insist that prisoners require at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily, yet just 74% of children spend less than an hour outdoors every day. Meanwhile, we have warnings that severe Vitamin D deficiency in this country, caused by an absence of natural light, is increasing noticeably.

I recognise that Britain’s weather, about which there is so much conjecture and derisory comment, alongside its equally tempestuous political climate, can make a dash abroad feel a necessity, but, to quote a New Zealand jingle from my childhood, ‘Don’t leave home till you’ve seen the country.‘ It would  sadden me when Year 6 children on a school journey, were dumbfounded to discover the sights and spectacle of Somerset or the Isle of Wight on our annual pilgrimages; some had never ventured out of London, yet had travelled business class to Florida, Mauritius or Dubai.

It doesn’t have to be a big journey to the country. Our towns and cities are full of countryside, places to explore, get dirty, have an adventure, make discoveries and get close to nature. While the Forest School initiative is a superb inclusion in the curriculum, and cycling is a healthy pursuit, neither are constant or even frequent, while a good dig in the garden, outdoor chores, a seasonal walk, a pond dip, a little bird spotting or natural collecting, are timeless, free and a forever plaster. ‘Children don’t have enough idle time to think on things. There is too much frenzy, too much scheduled activity‘- said children’s laureate, and mother, Lauren Child, last week.

I am in awed gratitude to Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris for their magnum opus. It is a work of great wealth, worth and quality. It merits a place in every home and school. It’s message meanwhile, of the wonder of our outdoors and the respect and attention it merits, must be realised.

“The Lost Words” is available from Bookwagon with a new delivery charge of £1.25 only

*It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the Earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility’– Rachel Carson, ‘The Sense of Wonder

‘Always buy British!’- Dark Age awaits!

Defender of the Realm Dark Age 

Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler

Defender of the Realm was a breath of hoof-hitting fresh air. I counted the days until the release of ‘Dark Age’, the second of the series. I read it in one go, only drawn away for a little research in support of the book’s incidental history and geography (rather like Alfie’s GCSE revision).

From the Houses of Parliament, to Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, Wimbledon, Suffolk farm lands, Thames swans, London buses, York’s Jorvik Viking museum, Britain is celebrated and visited unlike any other children’s book I’ve read.

To do this, within a fast paced, brilliantly written, action adventure book shows truly skilful writing! 

I love the padding out of Alfie’s character; we know he is vulnerable and sensitive, but we see the future king emerging, albeit with an over-dazzled 18-second royal handshake. I love Hayley’s impatience; her bravery, decisiveness and determined loyalty to those she values.

The Black Dragon returns, but Alfie understands more about him, and less about Brian, supposed loyal defender, and even less about his twin brother, Richard. As Defender, he is joined by the mysterious Red Robe and a Hogatrolla, in support of his quest to keep the long dead Vikings at bay.

I cannot recommend this title more. Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler accelerate the pace, build a hero fit for our times- complex and empathetic- while tapping into a relevant world-wide conflict of duty over success. ‘Dark Age’ is assured, rollicking, meaningful story writing. It’s time to click the spurs and come on board! You’re in for a read that is pure GULL!- (‘gold, in Old Norse). Bronnie https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/defender-realm-dark-age/

Watch this space (Mr Mole!)

It is really interesting to learn about the backgrounds and motivations of writers and illustrators. I became more aware of Jarvis when I looked over his most recent title, ‘Mrs Mole I’m Home!’ (Walker) and was prompted to share it, for it made me laugh so much. 

Jarvis is Peter Jarvis, one time bingo caller, bouncy castle painter, record sleeve designer and animation director. He appeared at this year’s Barnes Literature Festival, where he delighted his audience with stories and nonsense..

Jarvis received acclaim for his debut picture book, ‘Lazy Dave’ (Harper Collins), overdue a paperback print run. His second book, the hilarious, ‘Alan’s Big Scary Teeth’ (Walker) https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/alans-big-scary-teeth/ was part of the 2016 BookStart pack, offered to all preschoolers aged 3-4. It drew the attention of the V & A illustration awards’ committee resulting in Jarvis being one of three picture book makers in the shortlist to win this prestigious award in 2017. Other nominees were Benji Davis for ‘Storm Whale in Winter’ (Simon and Schuster) and Ana and Elena Balbusso for ‘Twelfth Night’ (The Folio Society). Previous winners of the V & A illustration award that recognises the very best in picture book illustration, include Laura Carlin https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/a-world-of-your-own/, Sara Fanelli, Posy Simmonds and Sir Quentin Blake.

Like  many creative people, Jarvis has taken a route of discovery toward his picture book making that has included varying experiences and people and developed his curiosity and vision.  Initially, he undertook illustrations for writers such as Jeanne Willis, https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/sticky-ends/, before creating his own picture books.

Jarvis says that he aims to ‘bring a person touch to his books.’ He wants to ‘see what his books can do, including being kept and loved as little treasures’. His aims are evident in what he creates, for they are quality, memorable picture books that ignite a reader’s emotions. Jarvis doesn’t repeat what has gone before, or look for a safe option, but makes something new, that he enjoys and wants to share with his reader. Bookwagon is pleased to stock titles by Jarvis, and looks forward to sharing more of his wonderful picture books in the future. https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/mrs-mole-im-home/

Newsflash!:- Jarvis is the 2017 winner of the V & A Book Illustrator of the year! https://www.vam.ac.uk/b/villa-2017/book-illustration

The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

‘Are you sure?’ an acquaintance enquired when I had told her of Bookwagon’s commitment to recommend only good books to readers from babyhood to young adulthood. Maybe it seems a tall order, but I am motivated to find, share and sell the best books according to the needs of each specific reading ‘band’.

Young adult, or in Bookwagon speak ‘Challenges’, pose the biggest ‘challenge’. This stream can appear isolated like an Eel Pie Island, between children’s and adult’s books. In both areas are wonderful titles that cross over and satisfy the reader. Then again, there are certain titles that hit the young adult reader spot succinctly. We aim to find and sell these at Bookwagon.

I have just finished reading ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’ by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (Faber and Faber) and assert we’ve another title that will leave a lasting, positive impression on our young adult readership. 

The four adolescent narrators- Hank, Ruth, Dora and Alyce- tell their stories over a period in the late 1950’s- 60’s when Alaska was newly admitted to the United States. They have their own obstacles to work through, from abusive and/ or absent parents, running away, conflicting opportunities, to identity. Like the Fairbanks setting, its mid- 20th century timeframe, places, events, people and routines are different, real and fascinating.

There is no sense that ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’ exploits this genre, something I fear most in this age range, for there is compelling authenticity, pride and strength in the author’s storytelling. I liked each of the characters and their understudy families and friends. As Brexit Britain triggers Article 50, the aftermath of the Alaskan secession seemed particularly relevant to me, as the residents and native peoples awaited an adjustment to their lives. There was a sense that the narrators felt powerless, but the course of the story ignited an understanding that each of them was able to stand up to their fears, uncertainties and oppression in order to move forward- ‘It’s hard to think about the river thawing when it’s still forty below. But when spring finally does come, it rushes in like a band of robbers.’

This is a tremendous, satisfying, long-lasting story that I recommend to any young adult or adult reader without exception. I look forward to Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s next title, details of which she will not, superstitiously, share. Her debut, already shortlisted for both the 2017 UKLA and CILIP Carnegie Awards, is outstanding. Bronnie 

So what does your cat see?

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle Books)

‘The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears and paws……’ what do they see? From the child, to the dog, to the fish to the frog, each sees the cat. We see the cat too, as it travels. But what do we see? What do each of the characters see? Finally, what does the cat see, when it comes ‘to the water’?

This outstanding picture book offers such rich opportunities to really observe, compare, explore and refine. It offers wonderful opportunities to read along, to memorise and share, question, and reread. I can imagine an emergent reader, pointing to the words, determining the text, building vocabulary, hand to eye co-ordination, a range and a reading joy. Meanwhile, the  illustrations are intricate, varied and wonderful.

They All Saw a Cathttps://bookwagon.co.uk/product/they-all-saw-a-cat/ is an essential book; for bedtime and to every reader. Bronnie 

Wonderful Wolf Hollow

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (Penguin)

‘Wolf Hollow’ doesn’t look a lot. To be honest, I was a little tentative, for two of my favourite books of recent months have been wolf books- ‘The Wolf Wilder’ and ‘The Wolves of Currumpaw’ However, the fear was ill founded for wolves feature only incidentally, as a tale told to Henry and James, Annabelle’s brothers. ‘Wolf Hollow’ has become the third wolf book to stand on my imaginary ‘shelf of fame.’

Annabelle is the eldest child of farming parents, living somewhere in the southern/ central United States in the  immediate aftermath of World War 2. She is a sensible girl, helpful, aware of the need to do her best at school and play her part at home. 

When Betty Glengarry arrives new to the area to live with her grandparents, who, like Annabelle’s family, are well established in the rural township, Annabelle is ill prepared for her aggression, threats and lies. Betty’s behaviour pushes Annabelle, her family, friends and community to a breaking point wherein they question themselves, their values and ultimately the local vagrant, Toby, who had found some refuge amongst them. 

This is a book about being true to yourself, your values and beliefs. Annabelle demonstrates a directness, courage and capability that is rare in lead characters. She is willing and thoughtful, with real relationships with her relatives and Ruth, her close school friend. 

Lauren Wolk, the writer, in turn, demonstrates a superior storytelling capability. She can build a narrative of momentum, grip and fluency. This is a wonderful story, which I had to share immediately after reading. I hope other readers, lucky enough to turn to this book, will love it as much as I have. Bronnie




Rabbit & Bear are a great pair for new readers!

Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits by Julian Gough and Jim Field (Hodder Children’s Books)

Bear is awoken early into his hibernation to learn a burglar has stolen his cache of food. His easy willingness to make the best of a bad situation leads him to build a snowman in the winter. Bear is joined by Rabbit, who shares his knowledge of the world, gravity and the defecation habits of the leporidae family. Rabbit offers Bear a large, old, black carrot to quell his hunger, but nothing from his suspicious store of honeycomb, frozen salmon and beetle’s eggs until…

This is a memorable, appealing, interesting and unpatronising choice for newly independent readers. There are opportunities to empathise with Bear and Rabbit’s situations, realise their setting, share in Bear’s learning from Rabbit’s demonstrations, and to appreciate Bear’s better nature. https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/rabbit-bear-rabbits-bad-habits/


STOP PRESS!:- ‘The Pest in the Nest’, sequel to ‘Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits’ is a rare and special beast (rather like Bear) in that it matches its predecessor in the quality of its content. The sequel deals with another issue which has some reflection in our daily/ nightly lives. How will Rabbit wind down, get to sleep, ease up on himself? https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/rabbit-bear-pest-nest/


I Was a Rat

I Was A Rat! (or The Scarlet Slippers) by Philip Pullman (Corgi Yearling)

Philip Pullman’s development from ‘Cinderella’ is a very funny story of page boy, Roger, who, turns up unannounced on the doorstep of a cobbler and his wife, one night. Roger claims to have been a rat before changing into a boy. Much of the humour comes about through Roger’s introduction to human life.

We enjoy an entertaining series of adventures in school, with the ‘Philosopher Royal’ and in a travelling circus-cum-freak show, toward a highly satisfying conclusion.

Pullman partly narrates the tale through the use of mocked-up front pages from ‘The Daily Scourge’ – a device which enables him to poke fun at the tabloid media and society’s attitudes to celebrity. The book conjures up powerful imagery; little wonder that the story has been filmed for television and produced on the stage.

Pullman is one of our very best writers for children; his “His Dark Materials” trilogy regarded as a classic, his adult books acclaimed, including his award winning ‘Grimm Tales’. Pullman’s readers are guaranteed a quality experience.

This book will delight children through its great characters, amusing dialogue and his skilful involvement of familiar fairy tales. ‘I Was a Rat’ will entertain adult readers too, with its satirical references to modern life. All told, this is a great selection,guaranteed to hook a newly confident readers with confident storytelling. Bob https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/i-was-a-rat/


Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford

Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford (Harper Collins) 

I approached this book skeptically. The title suggested something dimly lit, a syncopated copy of other books, one trying to catch a popular wave of incredulous humour. How wrong could I be? Other readers, who may have the urge to avoid this book that I had, listen up, for this is a tremendous story, truly original, well written and empathetic. It reads like a screenplay, with reminiscent settings beginning with a ‘Flight of the Navigator’ style opening.

Life changes for our hero, Al, in a rather Harry Potter like way, on his twelfth birthday. when his photographic memory laden grandfather, delivers Al a letter from his father. It instructs him to break into the under garage floor workroom of their  former home, where his father worked on a variety of secret scientific projects until his death, four years earlier. Al and his mother are settled into his stepfather’s home, with his Goth stepsister Carly. He copes with school, is fairly isolated and indistinguishable, but then Al likes it that way. He knows enough to get on with people, to cope when his stepfather gives him a Newcastle United shirt for his birthday, although Al has never liked football, particularly. 

Al’s seeming invisibility, his search for sense from his father’s letter, makes his behaviour and disappearance both more and less appropriate.

The book is wrongly placed in High Street bookshop shelves for this is not an early age reader. It is appropriate to older readers. Themes such as fitting in, relationships (real relationships such as exist in real families), racial and cultural differences, bereavement, finding your feet and coping socially, are offered through Al, who suggests a real twelve year old’s sensibilities, enquiry and experience (maybe without the time travel!)

I loved this book because of Al’s normality, albeit in the strangest of circumstances, the characters, his ordinary situation in a suburb of Newcastle, the fact he is mixed race, the fact he is a happy boy with a coping mechanism. I did not feel that Ross Welford was ‘ticking boxes’ as he wrote, but that he really knows and identifies with Al; that he really likes him, as we do.

I recommend this story highly to any readers and shall look forward to reading more titles by Ross Welford. https://bookwagon.co.uk/product/time-travelling-hamster/