Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Redefining the fine line between childhood and adulthood.

Publication date: 31st December 2015
Publisher: Andersen Press

I’d heard a lot about Orbiting Jupiter before I read it. A Bookseller ‘book to look out for in January’, and concerned with such an unusual and moving topic, I decided to stray into the realm of YA – despite being a picture book gal myself. I was most certainly rewarded for it.

Orbiting Jupiter is the kind of novel you can read on the tiny screen of your mobile phone, and still be moved to tears on a train surrounded by strangers. Tenderly written, and without overuse of cliche, Schmidt vividly recreates the intensity of young love and demonstrates the agelessness of grief.

Joseph, having been released from prison for attempted murder, and a young father at 14, is accepted into a foster family to avoid his own abusive father. Jackson, his foster brother, takes to him and supports him while the ‘other kids’ at school – and even some of the teachers – seek to avoid the strange and apparently dangerous teen. Joseph is able to open up about – yet never quite escape – his troubled past. This is a novel about loyalty and acceptance; about never giving up.

The reader is constantly in an emotional conflict over wanting to dismiss Joseph’s desires as childish, and the reality of not being able to understand the 14-year-old’s own turmoil, so beyond the common reader’s experience. The characters are relatable and well-constructed, though perhaps the lack of fear from the foster family, the Hurds, is unrealistic in the face of a convicted criminal. For me, there were moments when the optimism afforded by the unconditional kindness shown by the Hurds, and the utter despair when contemplating Joseph’s troubled life, jarred uncomfortably. However, overall the novel has a resounding impact, and one which has stayed with me, so perhaps this contrast is exactly the kind of magical realism the novel needs in order to come together.

As is, perhaps, to be expected, the question of abortion is never brought up. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but the complications – which are hardly surprising with such a young pregnancy – are presented as inevitable and the parents of the girl are quick to condemn the boy, rather than take a look at the choices they themselves made. Considering the topic will generally appeal to young readers who are old enough to be aware of the procedure, it was certainly confusing that it was never mentioned once, regardless of any moral stance on the part of the author or characters.

I would recommend it to any adult who has ever considered the gulf between children and adults to be insurmountable, or who has lamented the fact that some think it is. For young adults, I would recommend it to those wishing to challenge their preconceptions and glimpse a past of the differences and universalities of human experience.

Review: Snottydink by Ellie Curry and Dominic Trevett

Dragon-like, but with some elephant qualities.

Publication date: An undisclosed date in 2015
Publisher: FremantleMedia

Tonight is the final of The Apprentice, series 11, and what better way to prepare mentally than to review Snottydink. Half joke, half genuine interest, I have had a strong interest in reviewing this book for a while now. As a picture book fanatic, I was understandably intrigued by the work which has been universally hailed as “pretty good for something written in an afternoon.”

I have to say, I’m inclined to agree. The attempts at rhyme occasionally fall short, and I think the phrase “moisture rife” should be judged not because it is beyond the vocabulary of your average young child – reading teaches new words, that’s part of the point – but due to its sheer gratuitousness in the context. However, overall my take-away from the book is positive, and the feel-good factor is balanced and well-written.

To summarise: the eponymous Snottydink is different to the other ‘dinks’ because instead of fire, his nose releases water. Following the fairly standard trope of the journey from dismissal to acceptance – see other well-known figures whose noses cause their peers to ‘laugh and call them names’ and yet allow them to ‘go down in history’ – Snottydink praises the necessity of difference in a fun and creative way.

Equally impressive are the illustrations which, though obviously also imagined and created in an afternoon, include interesting and quaint detail, giving the reader insight into Dink life. Trevett has managed to find the right place for his illustrations to occupy, even under pressure, and they complement the text wonderfully.

A major part of the book’s appeal does remain in the novelty of the overnight creation, however under no circumstances is that its only quality. The story is well told, and the timings for revelation, acceptance, conclusion are perfect. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a fun book on tolerance, and one of the most ingenious duck/fuck puns I’ve read in a while.

So given my firmly positive reaction to ‘Ellie Curry’s’ 1-day creation, I guess I’ll just have to read Gobble Gruff  too.


Review: Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher

A topical, poignant retelling of the nativity.

Publication date: 12th November 2015
Publisher: Nosy Crow

Booth and Usher’s Refuge tells the story of the nativity in brief, from the donkey’s perspective. It follows the biblical narrative, whilst drawing clear, yet entirely indirect, parallels with the current refugee’s journey. The result is a picture book which creates a double world, the joy of Christmas with the real suffering of traversing expanses with a baby and “hoping for the kindness of strangers.”

I’m not the first to praise the political dimension of Nosy Crow’s recent publication but then, it was always meant to be at the forefront of the work. Literally, even, as the book comes with an image on the cover, notifying the buyer that £5 from the sale of the book goes to War Child, “in support of refugees.”

I have already spoken this week about ulterior motives in publishing, and what they mean when applied to genuinely good books. It would be possible to see the book as a gimmick if it were not so beautifully written and illustrated. However, it is not the charity donation which makes Refuge support refugees. It is the way the story weaves the traditional with the contemporary, and makes the reader re-evalute the present climate.

Books like Refuge make me wonder why adults think that children’s books are beneath them. This is a work which is current, even ironic at times, and fundamentally appealing to the human spirit. The narrative voice is clever and playful, with hints at a deeper understanding which fleshes out the picture book and motivates the reader. Most importantly, Booth manages to maintain the fundamental message throughout, whilst never making the reader feel like they are being fed ‘a message,’ expertly.

The illustrations are, for want of a better word, magical. The simple, minimalist lines and colours accentuate the verbal imagery and create the ideal atmosphere. The reader is guided emotionally from spread to spread by Usher’s creative choices, which are consistently on-point.

I would recommend this book to children with a love for interesting illustration, and a sensitivity to the lives of others. For adults, I would say anyone with an interest in the current climate towards refugees, and an appreciation of poetry.

When art met consumerism, or how Mog is coping with the fame

Judith Kerr is one of the great children’s book writers of our time. A master of the art of the picture book, but also an adept artisan of the chapter book, Kerr has been a household name for years. Why, then, 47 years after the masterwork that is The Tiger who came to Tea and, perhaps more importantly, 13 years after the final Mog title has Kerr revived her feline heroine for the 2015 audience?

As we must all be painfully aware by now, Mog’s Christmas Calamity is a collaboration between Kerr, HarperCollins and Sainsbury’s which uses the Mog character – last seen in Goodbye Mog (2002) where she died – to spread the word that #Christmasisforsharing. The book, which ties in with the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert and can only be found in Sainsbury’s stores, is also raising money for the literacy campaign Read on. Get on. of which HarperCollins is a founding member*. So far, so confusing.

Ann-Janine Murtagh, executive publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, was recently interviewed by Charlotte Eyre in The Bookseller describing Mog’s journey back from the underworld. Apparently Kerr wrote the most recent adventure in “about three months” and probably wouldn’t have written a new Mog book “if it hadn’t been for the literacy campaign.” This is where I find myself wondering about how to feel about this book.

First off, this is a Kerr. Much like a Dickens or a Picasso, it has an inherent value, simply by virtue of the fact that its creator is a brilliant artist. However, it is simultaneously seeped in a consumerist and artificial atmosphere which is almost asphyxiating, only to then be redeemed by its charitable nature. How does one reconcile the fact that Mog’s Christmas Calamity is obviously a stunt for Sainsbury’s to sell more products, with the fact that it is a genuinely good book?

Recently, the reality television programme The Apprentice gave its participants a task to create and sell a picture book in about 2 days. Understandably, people who write picture books for a living were uncomfortable with their art being considered a ‘product’ and an easy one to make at that. So when Murtagh reveals that Kerr wrote her book in three months rather than the usual “couple of years” with the direct aim to boost Sainsbury’s sales (amongst others), part of me is itching to ask what the difference is.

The Bookseller has been keen to remind us of Mog’s Christmas Calamity’s great success. It has even had a couple of its own ebulletins about how it has remained top of the charts for so long. And yet, despite discussing the picture book, the accompanying image has consistently been the animated Mog from the tie-in Sainsbury’s advert. The two are conflated in a way that makes the book synonymous with the advert, but also makes the advert lose its consumerist nature and become merely a ‘made for TV’ adaptation of the book.

It is likely, therefore, that the discomfort I, and certain others, feel about the ulterior motives behind Mog’s Christmas Calamity stems from the contrived separation of the two. For someone who is so passionate about the interplay between image and text in picture books, I’ve found it oddly difficult to accept that the book and the film feed off each other. They are one creative piece, promoting both the supermarket, prosaically, and the love of reading which lies at the heart of the entire campaign.

An article was published this morning about how the Christmas advert has become a social phenomenon, bigger and louder than ever. We can’t ignore the fact that at the heart of this book is Sainsbury’s desire to make their Christmas advert memorable, a desire to “publish a book at the heart of its campaign.” Perhaps, however, this merely makes Mog a social phenomenon too, and it is undeniable that it takes a good book by a great artist to make that happen.





*To confirm, I have no issues with people raising money for charities they are stakeholders in, as long as it is a good cause.