Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Some comments on YA Historical fiction

Ask a bunch of teenage students who Julius Caesar was and they will answer “Who is she?” You need not blame the inadequacy of the history curriculum -  it is simply that they do not read much.
An understanding of history for most people probably comes from stories. I did not “do” history of ancient Rome much less Genghis Khan or the Vikings at school. (I think my early school history stalled on Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson).  Yet, however imperfect our knowledge, we usually know something about them. I DO at least recognise where John Flanagan gets his inspiration for the exciting Rangers Apprentice series.
If one reviewer in Reading Time is correct, that young readers have been on a diet of futuristic and Celtic fantasy for many years, it is no wonder historical understanding may be missing.
I have always been fond of historical fiction. Probably the earliest and still one of my favourite reads was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Black Arrow won as a Sunday school prize and read that afternoon.
I remember borrowing Geoffrey Trease and homophonic Henry Treece from Stanley Lady Clark Memorial Library, may it rest in peace. Enthralled with the adventures in historic times, I did not know I was learning about history, I was just reading stories. Merely writing about it reawakens my interest to read them again as an adult.
Coincidentally I recently picked up Rosemary Sutcliff’s Shield Ring while I was reading Robert Ferguson The Hammer and the Cross: a new history of the Vikings London, Penguin, 2010. Sutcliff’s fiction made me much more aware of Viking history.  In Sutcliff’s story of the resistance to the Norman invasion by the Lake District descendants of the Vikings, the history supports the story.  The story is not a device for teaching.
This has opened my eyes, though I admit not necessarily my mind/heart, to some contemporary YA historical fiction.
A story should need no explanations; it should explain itself. My adult science-trained brain bridles at the paradoxes of the popular time travel device which interferes with my enjoyment of these stories.
However, Maureen McCarthy in her The Convent really hits the spot.  It is never didactic and uses the stratagem of telling the story from four generations of “Catholic” women’s points of view with nary a Tardis in sight. 

Like Bernard Shaw, my education was interrupted by schooling. I hope that the Australian curriculum does not spawn historic fiction in which the story is the device to “teach” history rather than history being  a device to tell a story. 
My appetite however has been whetted (not wetted) for more YA historical fiction.  Go to http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/01/literary-tour-through-historical-y/60731/ and see for yourself.

Richard Pickup (President, Children's Book Council of Australia (Tas. Branch) Inc.

Monday 14 January 2013

Velazquez and Tycho Brahe – an unusual juxtaposition?

Having recently been in Brisbane and had the opportunity to visit the exhibition ‘Portrait of Spain : Masterpieces from the Prado’, at the Queensland Art Gallery, my attention was captured when I read a review of a new YA novel, Jepp, who defied the Stars (Katherine Marsh, published 2012).  So I ordered and read my own copy (of course).

The Prado exhibition displayed, among many others, several works by Spanish court painter, Velazquez (1599 – 1660), depicting the Habsburg court of his time.  Notable among the Velazquez portraits were several featuring the dwarves employed as entertainers and curiosities at the court. Jepp, the hero of the novel, is a dwarf, not employed in the Spanish court, but in the court of the Infanta (Princess) Isabella Clara Eugenia, ruler of the Spanish Netherlands from 1598 to 1621.

Tycho Brahe

At this period in history, astrology and star charts provided a structure through which a person could understand his or her personality and possible future – believers in this structure considered they had little or no capacity to set a direction for themselves, or influence their lives. (If you read your stars each day in the newspaper, do you still have vestiges of this belief?)  Jepp, however, is portrayed as a strong personality with a capacity to resent his life as the ‘buffoon’ whose function is to be a mere toy at the court, always subject to the vagaries of the powerful courtiers.

Court Dwarf - Velazquez

His sudden removal from the court at Coudenberg and exile to Uraniborg (the home and astronomical observatory of Tycho Brahe, who developed his own model of the universe without the use of a telescope) was initially very disturbing for Jepp but his intellectual capacity and strength of character enabled him to make a home and future for himself – he ‘defied the stars’ and controlled his own destiny.

The novel is engaging in its focus on a community with a very different outlook on so many aspects of life – it seems that Jepp and other dwarves at the royal court were really owned, not employed, and the undoubted luxury of their lives did not make up for their lack of self-determination.  The contrast between the rigid court at Coudenberg and the more open community at Uraniborg is well drawn.  It’s not a simple read – many aspects of the story will need research and discussion to develop appreciation in the reader, but older teenagers and their teachers and families will be glad if they make the effort.

And here’s a question for you – when you read this book (I hope I’ve piqued your interest in it!), why did I get annoyed EVERY TIME I saw the word ‘auger’ (and I saw it and its derivatives quite often…)?

Patsy Jones

Sunday 6 January 2013

New Year's Resolution?

With 2013 well and truly underway, it was time to put into practice one of my new year’s resolutions – reading more YA books. And as serendipity would have it, a good friend had gifted me a copy of a YA novel entitled Between the Lines, written by Jodi Picoult with her teenage daughter Samantha van Leer.
When I first saw this book in a bookstore several weeks ago I just knew I had to have it – and it wasn’t only the title that made me think this way; it was the fact that the ‘grab’ on the front cover refers to a fairy-tale prince.
Why, you might ask, would teenagers be interested in reading a fairytale? And perhaps even more perplexing is why an adult would want to. Well, the story is about a fifteen-year-old, and hey, I’m a sucker for fairytales.
I read Between the Lines in less than two days which is pretty remarkable for me. Usually I have at least two books on the go and I find I read mostly at night, in bed, and usually fall asleep after a couple of chapters. But yesterday was a scorcher, temperature-wise, and today is much the same so reclining somewhere cool with a good book seemed the most logical thing to do. And this book certainly didn’t disappoint.
Between the Lines is a wonderful story, written from three different points of view in alternating chapters. First there’s the fairytale story about Prince Oliver’s search for a missing girl; then there’s Oliver’s own story in his own words. And finally we hear from Delilah, the fifteen-year-old who is actually reading the story. What a fascinating premise.
On top of this, each of the three points of view appears in a different coloured font, and scattered throughout the pages of the book are numerous black and white silhouette drawings. But the biggest surprise of all is the collection of wonderful full colour, full page illustrations, each beginning a new section.
Between the Lines is not just a good read, it’s an absolute delight for the eyes as well. Why not lose yourself in it, like I did, or better still, thrill a teenager with a read worthy of their attention.
Happy reading everyone!

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Reading in 2012

I have spent some time over the past few days, knowing that my turn to write the blog was fast approaching, mentally reviewing my year’s reading. Do I think there any books which stood way out from the others? Am I happy with what I had achieved? Do I need to expand the sources of my reading? I have also been mentally reviewing the processes I use for finding books to read: reviews (online and hard copy), lists from my local library and online, newspapers and of course word of mouth as well as bookshops. And I get lots of wonderful suggestions from other writers of the CBCA Tas blog, of course. I am sure that I have previously said several times that I am no longer buying books in the same way as I used to do. With this in mind, now I must either borrow from other people or use my local library and this also restricts the titles available.  Fortunately the library service is still reasonably well resourced, though it’s not as good as it has been in the past.
Most of my questions, for this blog, are going to remain rhetorical, and I am not going to spend time discussing my own responses. But they are relevant for all of us to consider now that it’s at the end of a calendar year and at the beginning of the summer holiday season when we might have the opportunity to read different titles from the ones which we usually choose.
My recent choices have been YA titles published in 2012 in the US, titles suggested by one of my lesser-used sources. There hasn’t been anything outstanding, but several have been ‘good reads’ which have been ideal for this time of the year.
The False Prince by Jennifer A Nielsen. This is the first of a fantasy series and I look forward to seeing where Nielsen travels when she develops the story of King Jaron. In this first part, we have the story of four boys, only one of whom will be chosen to impersonate the kingdom of Carthya’s missing prince. The chosen one is predictable, but not the processes which the boys have to go through.
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E Smith is a delightful light love story set in New York and London. Though it is not deep and meaningful, those who enjoy chick lit will end the book with smile on their faces.
Out of Sight Out of Time by Ally Carter is part of The Gallagher Girls series. Cameron has returned with amnesia and has to find out what happened during the summer when she found herself pitted against the Circle of Cavan. I enjoyed this one – despite my initial misgivings.
I have also re-discovered some of David Wiesner’s picture books (for readers of all ages) and had a delightful time exploring them again. He has won the Caldecott medal three times (with Tuesday, The Three Pigs and Flotsam) and has also had two honour books (Free Fall and Sector 7). His multi-layered stories, several of which are wordless, show the ordinary in a fantastical way, with a frequent focus on clouds and the sky. If you don’t know these books, search them out. 
Have a wonderful 2013, with peace and prosperity for yourself and your family. May you have lots of time for reading and may a superb selection of titles be available. 

Maureen Mann