Review: ‘A Fairy Extraordinary Christmas Story’ by A. J. York

Toy Story in fast-forward.

Publication date: 1st December 2015
Publisher: Nova Sky Books

Considering I was accosted by ‘elves’ handing out mince pies on the street only the other day, I figure it’s time to crack out the Christmas books. What better, then, than a novel about beloved Christmas decorations that come alive when we’re not looking.

Although the premise may not be entirely original, the execution is excellent, and York’s take on the classic childhood desire for living toys is special. Perhaps going a little too quickly at times – I would have liked to see more of the Sarah character, experienced more of her interactions with Tallulah – the end result is a novel which highlights the timelessness of those decorations that stay in the family through generations.

The narrative focuses in on Tallulah, a decorative fairy meant to go at the top of a Christmas tree. The reader is then taken through her experience of self-awareness, meeting other decorations like herself, and living in storage with other festive creatures. Something like three decades pass during the short novel – hence, my feeling that it is a bit too quick – yet perhaps that allows the reader to fully understand the experience of the decorations; they only see snapshots of the Andersons’ life in their designated holidays (Christmas, Halloween, Easter).

The conflict is resolved in an ode to friendship, yet oddly tinged with bittersweet resignation. I think this is the most interesting and original aspect of York’s work, and where it differs significantly from equivalents like Toy Story – the ability for the ‘decoration’ characters to accept their role as seasonal. Being in storage is not a punishment, but a state of being. It is simply when they are deprived of their chance for a ‘holiday’ that they take matters into their own hands. It leaves the reader with a sense of contentedness which concludes the novel wonderfully.

The pull of this story is certainly more one of emotional engagement than one based on suspense, which is comforting in a Christmas story. For children, it’s the secret hope of proof that toys really do come alive at night, and for adults it recreates the memory of excitement of Christmas time and the fine line between decoration and toy.

I recommend it as classic feel-good Christmas story with an emotional twist, for children with fine sensibilities, and a love for festivities and friendship stories. For adults, it hits the nostalgia chords, combining the childhood experience of Christmas with the separation that necessarily comes with adulthood.

 

 

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Adults who don’t read children’s books should be ashamed, and other clickbait

Now, I am aware that this is Slate and that I am playing their game by engaging, but I recently read Ruth Graham’s 2014 article on why adults should be embarrassed when reading novels “written for children” and, it being a view aired frequently, my impulse control has failed and I am in full defence mode. The article focuses mainly on YA fiction, referring to the rise in interest for novels like The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and proceeds to dismiss the quality of these novels – and others like them – in the name of maturity.

Admittedly, I have always been extreme in my literary opinions (the Author is dead, people) but I would advocate complete desegregation if it wouldn’t have a negative impact on children being able to find something that appeals to them when they walk into a bookshop or library. Using categories as anything other than a tool to approach books you know you are inclined to prefer is abuse of the system. I fervently believe that there is some children’s literature that is miles ahead of some adult literature, and that adults would benefit infinitely from reading it. I’m not just talking about your Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlands and your Roald Dahls; picture books hide a multitude of meanings and virtues. Good books speak to people and, contrary to popular belief, children are people too.

I realise that this may seem simplistic. Children are necessarily limited in their range due to cognitive development. A lot of books written for children are founded in education, which can often make them frustrating to adults who are already aware of the lessons being taught (yes, ‘a’ is indeed for apple). However, many good children’s books are not didactic, they are merely presenting an aspect of human experience within the framework of what a child can understand. It is, in fact, Graham and the many others who hold her opinion, who are infantilising adults by artificially limiting their reading range. An adult should presumably be able to contain and appreciate anything ‘adult’ and below – which would include ‘children’s’. There’s a definite echo of the criticisms one constantly hears on so-called ‘chick lit’ – intelligent women read ‘intelligent’ books (which just happen to be predominantly written by and about men), and so intelligent adults read books written by and about adults. That’s just how it goes.

Am I really the only one who feels like this arbitrary distinction between literatures is pointless at best? I think there’s something of the uncanny valley in YA. No one would write an article stating that adults who read picture books should be ashamed, a) because they are probably reading to children, and b) because they are not considered competition to adult novels – and rightly so, if anything they are closer to poetry, but that is a different matter. YA can look like adult fiction, can read like adult fiction, it can even deal with similar topics as adult fiction, but there’s something about it which makes us classify it as not-adult. It is defined by negatives, it functions more on the absence of a certain level of assumed maturity than the presence of a set of qualities per se.

Graham argues that “the YA and “new adult” boom may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books.” Not only do I find that unlikely, considering the much wider range of novels currently available for adults, but I also wonder what the problem with it actually is. Graham reminisces about the transition from YA to adult, I also have fond memories of my first ‘adult’ novel reading, however – unlike a child – I seem to find it reasonable to assume that I am a different person to others, with potentially different tastes.

And of course there are books that have a more literary streak, and the potential to be timeless more than others (she said, carefully avoiding ‘good’ and ‘bad’) but they are not confined to a genre or age group, they just run through the entire oeuvre of the written word. If we are talking about quality, I am the first to advocate that people should at least be striving to read ‘good’ books. Books that say something, that linger, that you get the immediate urge to recommend, those are the kinds of books people should be reading as much as they can. My argument is that books like that can be found in those “written for children.” They can be found in the dreaded YA category just as much as they can be found amongst the ‘Literary Fiction’ shelf.

So before this turns into any more of a rant than it already has been, I would like to end by reiterating that children’s books can be brilliant works of literature, and by adding my sincere hope that adults are reading children’s literature and YA if it appeals to them. There shouldn’t be an ounce of shame in reading a good book, and proclaiming that a book is inadequate or unworthy simply because of the intended audience is short-sighted at the very least. Graham and I will have to agree to disagree on the inherent quality of different books, and I think I’ll just leave shame behind.

Review: ‘Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye’ by Tania del Rio and Will Staehle

Walpole’s Otranto meets 21st century children’s writing.

Publication date: 24th November 2015
Publisher: Quirk Books

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania del Rio and Will Staehle is a children’s novel about a young boy trying to run his family’s ancestral hotel.

Picking up friends along the way, 12-year-old Warren sets out to find the legendary All-Seeing Eye, an apparent heirloom of the long line of hoteliers. By solving riddles, avoiding his witch of an aunt, and risking his life for others, he manages to unlock the secret of his legacy – all whilst keeping the unexpected influx of guests happy!

The novel is enjoyable, fast-paced and, most importantly, a true homage to the Gothic, aimed at a middle-grade audience. The constant oscillation between fear and relief, the unexplained and the clarified would have made Ann Radcliffe proud; the frequent buffoonery and comedic slant perhaps more T. L. Peacock. An admirable foray into traditional Gothic, without falling into the trap of become a caricature of one’s own attempt.

A highlight for adults might have to be what can only be termed a cameo appearance by a certain Captain Grayishwhiteishbeard. His dialogue is witty and self-aware, and his place in the novel very much encapsulates Warren’s childish dream of adult freedom, versus the reality of the ineffectiveness and even maliciousness of the adults he is surrounded by.

The illustrations and atmosphere are highly Burton-esque and, with a couple of confusing exceptions early on in the work, incredibly well-fitted to the narrative. Especially inventive is the occasional emphasis attributed to the dialogue by pulling sentences out of the text and giving them a silent movie style flashcard pedestal.  Staehle’s artwork is certainly the centrepiece of the novel, and a major part in the successful attractiveness in this  lively work.

I would recommend this novel to children with a dark streak and an inquisitive nature, and adults with a penchant for the ghostly and an interest in word-picture collaboration.

Welcome to ‘Not Now, Adulthood’

The savvy amongst you will notice this blog’s inherent tribute to the great David McKee’s children’s classic: Not Now, Bernard. This is a picture book which I found hilarious as a child and terrifying as an adult, just like so many which then go on to be banned by well-meaning parents thinking that their children have been socialised to fear just like they have.

What I read now as a tale of neglect and haunting loss, I used to read as a tale of triumph – an officially published ‘I told you so.’

So I’m hoping Not Now, Adulthood will be a blog where I can talk about children’s literature, whilst always keeping that duality at the heart of every good children’s book in the fore. The relationship between the adult author, the adult buyer, and the child Reader – with a capital ‘R’ – is something which fascinates me, and which will hopefully fascinate you after reading my posts.

So what will I post? Reviews, ramblings on children’s literary theory, comments on children’s publishing news and how I’m getting on in my Writing for Children course (which I’ve only just started, and I am taking mostly for the insight into what people think writing for children entails).

My opinions are strong, but my desire to learn and challenge myself is even stronger. So if you disagree with me, always let me know in the comments or on Twitter @eviecioannidi.

So while I neglect adulthood, and adulthood creeps up and bites me on the leg – watch this space.