Barnaby Book Club has been in hiatus in 2016 because I now work full time. But it’s okay because I work in a library. Not one of those new-fangled modern libraries of makerspaces, high tech offerings, 3d printers and ping pong tables. But an old fashioned library jam packed with…..books. High shelves bursting. Honestly? It can be a little overwhelming at times. From the handling of books as they go out and come back are shelved and found, I have been unable to resist many junior fiction offerings that have caught my eye.
I discovered Kate DiCamillo and gobbled up the classic, “Because Of Winn-Dixie”, the quirky “Flora and Ulysses” and her latest book, “Raymie Nightingale”. Flora and Ulysses had so much going on in it – sections told as graphic cartoon strips, constant hilarious references to Flora’s love of a super hero called Incandessto and a magazine called “Terrible Tings Can Happen to You!”, eccentric characters and a super hero squirrel that can type poetry. However, this busy-ness almost creates too many interruptions to the narrative flow. But it is still brilliant in so many ways. I read it aloud to the kids so perhaps the disjointed style of story telling was not best for that sort of reading.
Of these books, “Raymie Nightingale” was the most satisfying. It captivated me with the well drawn 1970’s Florida setting, the idiosyncratic characters (Ida Nee the baton twirling teacher!) and the subtle insights into a girl’s broken heart. Like “Because of Winn-Dixie”, the latest offering from DiCamillo explores a child’s acceptance of the disappointments of real life while still finding magic in the everyday through connecting with others. And dogs. Dogs always make everything better. Dicamillo makes parochial, historical stories completely accessible through pinpointing human emotions in a language kids can taste and consume and totally absorb all the nutrients from. It’s rich and unashamedly emotional.
As are Hilary McKay’s “Binny” series – these books never underestimate their audience; the storytelling structure is clever and complex and the story doesn’t shy away from difficult events. And there’s a dog.
Every kid 10 years and over that I met in the library told me I HAD to read “Wonder” by R J Palacio. And hey. They were right. This is a big bear hug of a book. It’s a cry on the tram book. A heart in your mouth experience that manages to sideline corny sentiment through the creation of such rich, warm, flawed characters. It tells the story of Augie, born with severe facial deformities and follows his first year of going to a normal school after the protection of home schooling. The story is told from various perspectives, through his own voice and those around him. Every point of view is rich and keenly observed and builds a detailed picture of Augie’s life and how his deformity affects so many. Oh. And there is a dog. And like all those kids said -READ IT!
Another standout on the writing front was “Confessions of an Imaginary Friend” by Michelle Cuevas – such a hilarious concept: a memoir of an imaginary friend who didn’t know he was imaginary and the existential angst that follows finding out. It is essentially a story of finding belonging, of growing up and of understanding who you are. Written in such a sparkling and original way. I laughed and laughed and cried and cried and thought. A lot. Oh. And there’s a dog.
While I was discovering many new to me authors, there was also the reading of an essential classic – “Danny The Champion of the World” by Roald Dahl. This is another I read aloud to my kids in the year of celebrating Dahl’s 100th birthday. Much of this was lost on the kids but caught in the well of my emotions. The kids struggled with the idea that the protagonists are essentially committing a crime – poaching pheasants – and found the whole hunting pheasants a bit confronting too. All so politically incorrect to these young people. But the heart of this book is a father and son story that demonstrates the powerful parental bond, the idealisation a child has of a parent and the value of belonging to a community.
David Walliams is often compared to Dahl. Both write his subversive tales of the underdog. In the library we can barely keep a David Walliams book on the shelf. The two I read this year were “Gangsta Granny” and “Boy in the Dress” – both read aloud to the kids. The books don’t have Dahl’s linguistic flights of fancy and can get bogged down in detail but they are warm hearted and funny. More tears with these ones! But a serious lack of dogs.
From local authors I read the always reliably Jen Storer’s “Truly Tan” series (which is for younger kids, 6- 8 years ) and, for the older demographic, “The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack.” Jen knows kids, builds believable world, injects them with fun and magic, and tells a great tale. And there are dogs.
Another local book I read was “Iris and the Tiger” by Leanne Hall. This was a strange tale of a girl sent to Spain by her gold digging parents to stay with an eccentric great aunty who has a mansion. While there, Iris discovers strange magic and family secrets. I found myself questioning the plot but loving the surreal visuals. “Cicada Summer” by Kate Constable, again for older kids, had similar themes – greedy money hungry father keen on acquiring an old mansion for development – but was a more conventional time slip narrative. Both these books I found a little over written, self consciously descriptive and then at other times quite brilliant.
Both books have an unreliable greedy father figure. I was discussing this with a friend who writes junior fiction and he was saying what is the worst fear to explore for a child? A mother lost (dead or abandoned or gone) and a father you cannot trust. Interesting.
The Friday Barnes Series by R A Spratt is bristles with cleverness and I recommend them for older readers. Really smart, entertaining mysteries. Spratt is another Australian author I discovered this year. Her Nanny Piggins series is hilarious. And last but not least in the local-authors-I-read-in-2016, is Karen Foxlee. “Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy” is a traditional magical fantasy book that has a dreamlike world that will give you goosebumps.
“El Deafo” is the first junior graphic novel I have read. it is about Cece, a girl in the 1970’s who becomes deaf after having meningitis as a four year old. The books follows her years at school, her struggles with friendships, the different technologies of her hearing aids and her love of television shows. A great book about diversity with wonderful drawings and ideas. I wonder how children will go with the 70’s tv references – but I loved them!
Last but not least, another book in an interesting format. “Confessions of a Former Bully” by Trudy Ludwig is a handbook written by someone who knows the tactics inside out – a former bully herself! It is enlightening and accessible.
In good news the Barnabies are reuniting in 2017 to be bookclubbers again. Looking forward to discovering more wonderful junior fiction with the gang