2015: Books (Part One)

I’ve been writing a lot this year (finishing Railhead, writing Reeve & McIntyre 4, and starting Railhead 2, among other things). That sometimes means I can’t find much time to read. It definitely makes it harder to read novels – I find I’ve skimmed a whole chapter and taken nothing in because my mind has drifted away to whatever story I’m working on. But here are some of the books I have read and enjoyed this year.

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I am still reading to Sam of an evening, and it’s still the best bit of the day. I think my favourite read-aloud book this year was Richard Adams’s Watership Down. I remember reading it when I was Sam’s age (in 1979, when the animated film came out) but I didn’t recall very much about it, beyond enjoying it. If you don’t know it, you could be forgiven for assuming it’s a twee children’s book about anthropomorphised rabbits, but it’s so much more than that. The rabbits are very human, but they don’t have clothes or human houses or anything, like Beatrix Potter characters; they live as rabbits live. But this isn’t a Tarka the Otter-ish attempt to get inside the minds and lives of real animals, either – these rabbits have their own language, societies and myths. The central characters, escaping from a doomed burrow, make a great cross-country oddyssey to establish a new burrow of their own. Once there, they come in conflict with a terrifying, totalitarian burrow run by the tyrant General Woundwort. Stalinist bunnies sound silly, I know, but they aren’t when you read the book, which is a) an edge-of-seat adventure story, and b) a kind of exploration of different social structures. It’s unease about eco-doom and authoritarianism is very 1970s, and its plucky, pragmatic, decent heroes are very British. It really deserves to be shelved alongside Tolkien as one of the great English fantasy novels of the 20th Century.

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Favourite children’s books published this year include V. Peyton’s endlessly inventive and engaging post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story Silo the Seer, which I reviewed here, and Philip Womack’s compelling fantasy The Broken King, (technically from last year, but part of an ongoing trilogy).

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I also enjoyed Matt Ralphs’s debut Fire Girl, a witch vs witch-finders adventure set in a parallel 17th Century England where the Civil War involved all sorts of magical goings-on. I’m a bit wary of this type of historical fantasy now, mainly because there seems to be so much of it that I wonder if it’s helping to edge actual historical novels out of the children’s market (the Civil War and the Protectorate are great settings for a story, but the only recent books I’ve seen which use them add magic to the mix). But it’s very unfair to criticise a book for not being a different book, and Fire Girl is as full of hissable villains, hair’s breadth escapes and awful monsters as young readers could hope.

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A late entry is Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, which is hard to avoid at the moment as it’s in all bookshop windows and plastered in poster form all over the London underground. But happily the hype is justified. It’s a very charming and rather beautiful Father Christmas origin story, with superb black and white illustrations by Chris Mould. It’s quite dark in places, especially in the early chapters – as an adult I found much black humour to enjoy in young Nicolas’s dreadful childhood, but if you’re reading this as a bedtime story, and you have the sort of child who won’t let you knock off until you reach a happy or at least a hopeful bit, you’d better be prepared to make the first instalment quite a long one. Eventually good prevails, of course, and it ends up being very merry and very Christmassy indeed.

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Finally, when Sarah McIntyre isn’t busy mucking about on stage with me or illustrating our books, she writes and draws her own picture books. This year she published Dinosaur Police, which is big, silly, fun and full of lovely little McIntyre touches (and pizzas which look good enough to eat). If you like dinosaurs, or, indeed, police, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

Part Two will follow tomorrow…

 

Happy Puglication Day To Us

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Today is the official publishing date for Pugs of the Frozen North, my third book with illustrator, megastar and international hatstand Sarah McIntyre.  It’s the tale of Shen, Sika, sixty-six pugs, and how they get mixed up in a wild and magical dogsled race to the North Pole. It draws on Sarah’s knowledge of Alaska and Russia, and my knowledge of Wacky Races. Sarah’s written a lovely blog about how she created one of the characters, hirsute heroine Helga Hammerfest…

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And our brilliant puglishing and puglicity teams at OUP have been getting into the spirit, too…

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Sarah also designed these lovely free-standing pugs, which will be helping to advertise the book in shops…

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It’s been great working on these books with Sarah and the OUP team, and I think Pugs is my favourite so far. Thanks, guys!

Also, if you want to check out my old stuff, remember that this is also the publication day for these…

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(Balalaika LP cover photo by Stuart Pyle, graphics by by Jo Cameron.)

Low Flying Illustrator Buzzes Book Fest!

Wait – what’s THAT? Up in the SKY! Is it a BIRD?


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Is it a PLANE?

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Oh, it’s just Sarah McIntyre, being lowered by crane into the Guardian Children’s Book Festival at London’s Granary Square.

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If you think it looks alarming for her, imagine how it felt for the anxious watchers on the ground…

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This was a new event – the children’s books element was part of a larger festival called ‘Curiosity’, and there was LOADS going on. I was so busy watching Sarah dangle from her crane that I missed Emer Stamp, who was on before us – her Diary of a Pig looks great. But I did get to meet author and illustrator Paul Stickland. His picture book Dinosaur Roar is a must for anyone with dinosaur-crazy toddlers, or anyone who’s dinosaur crazy themselves. (Paul also took the best of those dangling McIntyre pictures.)

And we caught a glimpse of award-winning poet Joseph Coelho, but he was in mid-poem, so we couldn’t stop to talk.

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Sarah and I were doing our new PUGS OF THE FROZEN NORTH show in an inflatable igloo. It was basically the same show we did at Edinburgh last week, but with slightly more technical problems to overcome. We had a giant piece of paper to draw our Race to the Pole game on, but no board to rest it on. Luckily the Guardian had provided a seemingly infinite number of helpers, who acted as a human easel.

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We also had OUP’s Sarah Howells to help out – she took some of these pictures, and was able to provide Anti-Yeti Spray when Sarah’s unfortunate Hairy Hands problem flared up again mid-show…

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The audience were a big help, too – particularly the lad who, when we asked what perils our racers might face on their way to the pole, suggested, ‘mistletoe’.  And what would we do without Sarah’s husband Stuart, who is always a tower of strength at these events, carrying things, blowing up inflatable dice, taking photos, etc?

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Actually, we’re going to have to find out what we’ll do without him, because we have a whole Pugs of the Frozen North tour starting at the end of September (details HERE) and I don’t suppose Stuart will be able to make it to all the venues. But we’re getting the hang of this show now, so fingers crossed. The big question is, how on Earth are we going to top Sarah’s crane stunt? Matthew Tobin on Twitter has a Helpful Suggestion…

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Thanks so much to Emily Drabble and her colleagues at the Guardian for asking us to be part of their festival! We hope it will be the first of many!

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