Audiobook review – “The New Wilderness” by Diane Cook

In my final book review of last year I wrote of my delight that Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize. It was one of only two of the shortlisted books I managed to complete before the prize winner was announced (the other one I read, Burnt Sugar, I liked somewhat less and have also reviewed here). I had another of the shortlisted books ‘in progress’ at the time the winner was announced, The New Wilderness by first-time author Diane Cook, which I listened to on audio. It was utterly compelling and was beautifully read by Stacey Glemboski. It reminded me very much of a previously shortlisted book, The Overstory, by Richard Power, which was nominated in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years.

The New Wilderness is set in what seems, frighteningly, a not too distant future in America. Environmental decline has wreaked havoc on ordinary life, such that urban living is barely sustainable, and there are few alternative spaces left for citizens to inhabit. The government has authorised a research project to allow a small group of twenty people to inhabit one of the last remaining wild areas, but there are strict rules that they must observe, including having no contact with the outside world, and leaving no trace of their habitation on the environment, which means not staying in one place too long or building a camp. (The irony is not lost.) The group is closely monitored by Rangers, who enforce the regulations, and the group is required to attend stations every few months to register births, deaths and significant events. The story is told through the eyes of the leading character, Bea, whose partner Glen was one of the academics leading the research. Bea had volunteered for the project in order to remove her daughter Agnes from the city which was killing her slowly. Agnes suffered from a range of unnamed conditions which have been cured by life in the wilderness. Agnes is about ten or eleven when we meet her although no-one has really been keeping track; time is marked by seasonal change not the calendar.

When the book opens the group has already been living in the wilderness for some years. It opens dramatically with the deaths of two members of the group in a hazardous river crossing, in which a valuable rope is also lost. What is immediately striking to the reader is how the loss of the rope is mourned nearly as much as the loss of the companions, indicating how the group has become more focused on survival than finer human emotions. Further death occurs early on when Bea gives birth, alone in the forest, to a dead baby, which she buries quietly and away from the rest of the group. The dead child will be a recurring motif throughout the book; Bea left the city to save her daughter, and lost another because she was in the wilderness.

Life is extremely challenging and there are clearly tensions in the group, which the author takes great care to illustrate in skilful detail, particularly over ‘leadership’ – Glen, as one of the project’s initiators, was once looked to as a kind of informal leader. Glen becomes sick, however, and another of the group members, the strong more dominant alpha male-type, Carl, sees an opportunity to weigh in. Bea has also emerged as a strong leader in the group and Carl, in an attempt to fully oust Glen from his unofficial position, goes about bringing her to his side as well. Here the community is disintegrating; it’s like Lord of the Flies with grown-ups. Further chaos ensues when a small group of newcomers – city refugees who were on a ‘waiting list’ to join the original group in the wilderness – is encountered. To anyone who knows anything about group psychology – forming, storming, norming and all that – this is fascinating. It is also fascinating to see the way the two distinct groups spar with one another, with whom individual members place their loyalties, and how readily the original population integrates with the ‘immigrants’. There are also more young people among the newcomers, teenagers, and Agnes, now a teenager herself, has the opportunity the develop relationships with people her own age for the first time. But the differences between them in terms of their life experiences to date makes it difficult for Agnes to navigate her way among them. With the teenagers a further faction in the group emerges.

Author Diane Cook

What the author creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of our problematic human society, where Utopia cannot exist, where the human condition leads to inevitable decline. The wilderness is not the ideal society that the participants hoped it would be; yes, it is ‘natural’ and (mostly) unpolluted, but it is also brutal, and even the most idealistic among them hanker after a shower, some easy food, a haircut. Most strikingly however, is the failure of the community, socially, although the strict policing of the rules by the overweening and power-drunk Rangers (some more than others) does not help.

I have only scratched the surface of the book in this review – it is a highly complex novel and I fear I have not done it justice. It is a dystopian novel, which predicts a bleak future (do not read this if you want something uplifting!) where the opportunity to influence climate change has passed. It is also a novel about motherhood; Bea left the city to save her daughter’s life. In the middle of the novel she also flees the wilderness for a time (abandoning her daughter) when she learns that her own mother has died. The mother who begged her not to go.

All of the Booker-shortlisted novels I have read so far are about mothers or motherhood. Is that a coincidence?

Highly recommended.

Book review – “The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abi Daré

I chose this book for my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge in November and totally forgot to post my review! What happened to me just before Christmas, I don’t know! The theme in November was a book from the new decade (we had something from the last decade in January) and I chose this book because it had caught my eye a few times and because it has been an international success for its first-time author. Abi Daré was born in Lagos, but now lives in the UK having studied for her degree here. The book is dedicated to her mother, the first professor of taxation in Nigeria, whom she thanks for the sacrifices she made for her daughter’s education. The importance of education for girls is a theme that dominates the novel. (If you read no further please go to the stats at the end of this post.)

The book is narrated by Adunni, a fourteen year old girl from a small village. She lives with her father and two brothers (one older, one younger), their mother having died from an unnamed illness, but is likely to have been tuberculosis. Adunni still grieves for her beloved mother, who always promised her daughter that she would receive an education. Adunni’s father does not think the same way; the family is poor and, in order to pay their rent, he decides to sell his daughter to an older man in another village, who seems to have a penchant for young wives. Adunni will be his third wife and her job is to produce a son for him as soon as possible. The elder wife bore the first daughter and is wicked and jealous and beats Adunni. The second wife, Khadija, is also very young and has already borne three daughters and is pregnant with her fourth child, whom she hopes will be a boy. Khadija is kind to Adunni and helps her to manage the advances of their lecherous husband.

Tragedy strikes, however, when Khadija dies in premature labour. Adunni, who was the only one with her at the time, fears she will be blamed, so she decides to run away. She tracks down an old friend of her mother’s who introduces her to her son, the mysterious Mr Kola, who the woman says can find her work as a housemaid and that the owner will pay for Adunni to be educated. This is everything that Adunni wants and so she goes with Mr Kola. He takes her to a rich household in a Lagos suburb. Adunni has never been to Lagos before and she is overwhelmed by the size of the city and its chaos.

‘Big Madam’ is a successful entrepreneur, owner of a company selling luxury fabric, and she lives in a gated property with fancy cars, servants and her (also lecherous) husband. Adunni is treated badly – she has effectively been sold into slavery by Mr Kola. She is never paid for her work, is beaten by Big Madam and it looks as though the hoped-for education is never going to happen. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers so will cease my plot description there.

Adunni’s journey and her wide-eyed and innocent commentary on the events that befall her is at once charming and horrific. The courage and ingenuity she shows in the most testing of circumstances are truly heroic, that is the uplifting bit, but the brutality of the treatment she receives, from rape, to physical abuse, to theft and exploitation, are out and out shocking. If it were not for Adunni’s charm the book would be barely readable. Adunni’s ‘louding voice’ refers to her growing courage, her determination to speak up and speak out against her abusers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author has tackled some truly grave themes with creativity and humour. We are reminded throughout that we are talking about present day Nigeria, not something from a bygone era before feminism and human rights; no, this is still happening. References are made to Boko Haram and the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014. This book reveals the reality of life in the 21st century for too many girls and young women in this vast country of over 200 million people.

It is a sobering read, but a good one and I recommend it highly. Please note the statistics below.

“Around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age. In countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Only 66 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. At the secondary level, the gap widens: 45 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education, and 25 per cent in upper secondary education.”

Source: Unicef, https://www.unicef.org/education/girls-education

Audiobook review – “Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris

When I posted my new Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week, I completely forgot to mention the final book of my 2020 reading challenge, which was The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. I chose it because I just felt a bit of a laugh was in order at the end of what had been a challenging and intense few months. I decided to go for this one on audiobook because I love Sedaris’s unique style of delivery; he is mostly quite deadpan, but that just gives his occasional bursts of comic energy all the more impact.

The book is a series of sketches loosely based on Christmas themes. The longest of these, and the one which opens the book, is an account of the author’s time working as a Christmas elf at Santaland in Macy’s department store in New York city (the veracity is disputed, but who cares?). I made the mistake of starting to listen to this on one of my morning runs. I have to tell you that I had to stop several times, doubled over with breathless laughter and my chuckles got me some strange glances from passers-by! In the caricatures of ghastly parents, children, his fellow elves and the mostly overly self-important ‘Santas’ we can all recognise tiny little bits of ourselves. These pieces were first aired on various media in the early 1990s, but it is extraordinary how much of it remains punishingly accurate today. In the awful, domineering parents bullying their kids into posing for photos with Santa bearing gleeful smiles (regardless of their true feelings) he foreshadows instagram parenting which values the posting of an experience more highly than the experience itself. You could easily believe that Sedaris had been made completely cynical by his seasonal work experience but he ends the piece with an uplifting account of one of the truly magical Santas who really did enchant the children who came to see him.

The next couple of essays I found more clever than funny- one is a woman reading out her round robin Christmas letter in which she gives an account of her husband’s illegitimate Vietnamese daughter turning up at the family home, and ends very darkly when her own daughter’s baby dies, it turns out, at the hands of the narrator, who has tried to pin the blame for the crime on the Vietnamese ‘interloper’. Macabre humour indeed.

My favourite essay was called ‘6 to 8 Black Men’. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard. It sounds very un-PC, but it is actually extremely self-deprecating and pokes fun at north American Christmas customs and the culture more generally (including the systemic racism), as compared to their European counterparts. I have had a couple of repeat listens of this piece and watched it on YouTube and it made me laugh just as much second and third time around. Sedaris’s humour is edgy at times, but I think the best comedy tends to makes you slightly uncomfortable.

This was a wonderful little collection, suitable for any time of year, and a perfect introduction to Sedaris, if you have not come across him before.

Highly recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – December Choice

I am thoroughly enjoying November’s reading challenge choice – The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. I have not yet completed it (nothing new there then!), but it is reminiscent of our June choice, which was of course The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. That’s not a problem as I loved that one too. The Girl with the Louding Voice is a slower read because it is narrated by Adunni, the fifteen year old central character, and therefore written very much in the natural style of her speech. A non-African reader may find this takes a bit of getting used to, but the richness of the narrative is very rewarding.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wins the Women’s Prize ‘Best of the Best’

Both the above novels are set in Nigeria and it is great to see that country at the head of literary news at the moment, with voters in the Women’s Prize for Fiction awarding the prize of prizes to Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (it got my vote – one of the best novels I’ve ever read). I have a complete girl crush on this woman – she is incredible! For many fiction readers she has put Nigeria on the literary map, but of course that nation has a rich literary history in the likes of Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ben Okri. I feel sure that Abi Daré will be adding her name to that list in the near future. But more of that next week when I finish and review the book.

What of this month’s choice? Well, the theme is a book for winter. I wanted to avoid the theme of a book for Christmas. I don’t know about you but by the time we get to the middle of December I am sometimes a little bit ‘over’ Christmas already. Christmas this year, however, has felt somewhat on hold up to now, due to Lockdown 2.0, and definitely lower key. We have had some very serious books recently so I think it’s time for a bit of a Christmas laugh. I’ve chosen a humorous seasonal book by North American comedian David Sedaris. You may have heard him on his occasional Radio 4 show. He is extremely funny.

I’ve chosen Santaland Diaries (some editions called Holidays on Ice), which is a slimmish volume of six essays about his experiences as ‘Santa’ working in Macy’s. I think I’m going to go for this one on audio – I could do with a chuckle as I head out on my morning runs this month! I love Sedaris’s deadpan delivery and it will take my mind of the cold and wet!

I hope you will join me on the challenge this month. I think it will be a fun one.

Happy reading!

Booker Prize 2020 – winner announced tonight!

In previous years I have set myself the task of trying to read the Booker Prize shortlist between the time that it is released, usually mid-September, and the announcement of the winner. This is usually a month or so later in mid-October, so it is a tall order – six books in a little over four weeks. I have never succeeded in this endeavour – I’m usually still working my way through the list at Christmas. How do the judges get through so many books in the time that they do? I doubt they are even paid much to do it!

Last year, the Booker Prize was far from the forefront of my mind as my mother died in mid-September and her funeral coincided with the week of the announcement of the winner. I did subsequently read both of the books that won the prize jointly (remember that extremely unusual outcome?) – Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – as well as Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. I still have Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport on my TBR list.

This year the announcement of the winning book is a month later than usual. I assume this is all down to ‘the pandemic’ though I’ve heard of no official reason being given. Perhaps the committee has decided to be a bit kinder to the judges this year. Once again, I decided against trying to get through the shortlist, but have in fact read two of the books, one of which I loved and one of which has left me wondering if I missed something!

The book I loved was Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a superb debut novel. Set in early 1980s Glasgow it is a visceral account of a young boy growing up in an atmosphere of poverty and his beloved mother’s alcoholism. The working-class community in which he lives is being ground down by the searing devastation of the Thatcherite era. Shuggie is ‘unusual’ – he is effeminate and naive, but his relationship with his mother is an portrait of love stretched to its very limits by the strain of addiction. I plan to write a longer review of this book so I will say no more at this stage. Let’s see if it wins!

The other book I read, and which I’m afraid I didn’t love, was Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. It is the story of a strained mother-daughter relationship. The mother, Tara, has dementia and her daughter, Antara, is finds she is forced increasingly to care for the woman who failed to care for her properly as a child. Tara left her husband with her daugher to join an ashram when the child was still very young. Their ‘bohemian’ lifestyle included some time spent begging, and also living with an artist who it is clear did not really care for either Tara or her young child. Antara experienced a degree of neglect as a child, for example receiving very little formal early education, and her mother’s attitude to her has been one largely of indifference.

As a mature woman, Antara struggles with the demands placed upon her by her mother. Tara can be cruel – is that the disease or is that how she has always behaved towards her daughter? She is engaged to be married to Dilip, an Indian-American, who cannot fully empathise with Antara’s dilemma. This book reminded me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which has a similar storyline and which I also struggled to enjoy (though I think it was a better book). Everything Under was shortlisted for the Booker in 2018. Burnt Sugar has also been compared to Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk – I cannot concur . I loved that book. I’m afraid that, for me, what Burnt Sugar lacks is a story. Even after reading it, I’m afraid I’m not sure what it is really about, or what it is trying to say, apart from dementia is a horrible disease that throws family relationships into turmoil. Even the ending leaves you hanging. There is no narrative question that is resolved, which, for me, is one of the fundamentals of fiction.

I don’t like giving negative reviews and I have seen so many positive statements about this book; am I missing something? This one just did not do it for me. And my fellow book club members seem to agree – a pretty resounding thumbs-down! Perhaps it is just that Shuggie Bain is such a fabulous story, that this book felt wanting.

I am about to start another book on the shortlist – The New Wilderness by American author Diane Cook, another novel about motherhood, but this time in the shadow of climate change.

We will see what happens at the announcement tonight. One thing is for sure, it will not be the usual black-tie dinner!

#KeepKidsReading…and how this can be a joy for you too

To conclude this series of posts on my #KeepKidsReading theme I would like to tell you about two moments of joy I had last week, one of the head and one of the heart. Last weekend, I sat and read a little book that has been on my TBR shelf for a few months, Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise by “children’s” author Katherine Rundell. This is a little number that was sitting on the counter when I was in my local bookshop a while back – the literary equivalent of chocolate bars at the checkout! Given my interest in children’s literature I was bound to pick it up, plus I had not long read Katherine Rundell’s wonderful book The Explorer about a group of children stranded in the rainforest when the light plane they are travelling in crashes.

Rundell makes the grown-up case for reading children’s literature not just as a child (or perhaps because of a child) but for its own sake. I have to say that reading it in the middle of the current pandemic and after, frankly, the drama and protracted uncertainty of the US Presidential election, children’s books offer us not so much escapism, as a way of dealing with challenges. Good children’s characters discover a resourcefulness they usually didn’t know they had and develop a resilience which can give all of us an idea of how to ‘be’ in the world. It may not offer us the perfect happy ending but it can show us how to come to terms with reality; in the book review I posted earlier this week of Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom, yes it has a happy ending, but let’s not forget there was carnage along the way – a war, child abuse, a dead mother and baby, a friend killed, and a lost wife and child. But somehow, William, and indeed Tom, learn how to accept and grow from their experiences. Tragedy and loss will, at some point, befall all of us and somehow we need to learn how to cope with it. The best of children’s literature can show us some ways.

So, now for the heart moment. A few months ago I bought a copy of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, which was heavily promoted in bookshops after it was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2019. I bought a copy because I’d heard such good things about it and liked the illustration style and the quotes I’d read. Somehow, though, I never got around to reading it, which is a terrible shame because it is magical and wondrous. It’s a gentle and moving tribute to the values of kindness and compassion, and an exhortation to embrace the differences between us. At its heart lies a belief in the magical power of love to lift us out of any darkness. And I can’t think of a sentiment more appropriate to our times than that. It has the power to induce a kind of inner silence, you will smile, and your heart rate will drop. It is also very beautiful to look at and to touch.

If you haven’t already got a copy, please get one and read this extraordinary book. It will take no more than half an hour of your time, although you may find, like me, that it keeps drawing you back. Please give copies of it as gifts this Christmas. We associate this time of year with peace and joy, and this book embodies it.

I can think of no finer book than The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse to endorse Katherine Rundell’s thesis. We should all be reading more children’s books.

#KeepKidsReading book review – “Goodnight Mister Tom” by Michelle Magorian

This book was my October choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s book. I read it during half term, when I also posted one of my occasional #KeepKidsReading series on building a children’s library. This book had been on my radar for years; I think my son read it in school so we have had a copy around the house for some time. It is set around the time of the outbreak of the Second World War and so I imagined it dated from the 1950s or ‘60s, but in fact it was first published in 1981 and won a number of prizes around the world, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. It was made into a film starring John Thaw in 1998 which I am told is excellent – I have just bought the DVD and can’t wait to watch it.

A scene from the 1999 film adaptation starring John Thaw

When you read the book you quickly see how it could not have been written much before the 1980s, although even then it would have been quite ground-breaking; it deals with child abuse, amongst other things, pretty remarkable in a children’s book.

Londoner William Beech is eight years old when he first arrives at the home of ageing widower Tom Oakley. The novel is set in the rural village of Little Weirwold, but the county is not specified. I imagined Sussex or Hampshire – not too far from the capital. War has not yet broken out, though it seems inevitable, and children are being evacuated as a precautionary measure in anticipation of Nazi bombing. William is thin, sickly and covered in bruises, a timid, frightened character with poor literacy for his age. We soon learn why. His mother, a single parent, is an extremely religious woman who has controlled William through severe physical punishment and has kept him from school because she believes it to be a godless place. He lacks any confidence and self-belief because he has been told all his life that he is worthless. Tom Oakley is a gentle, patient man and seems instinctively to know how to deal with William’s problems, such as his persistent bed-wetting, which he handles with calm and grace. He quickly realises how fragile his young charge is and when William reveals, quite innocently, the way his mother has treated him, Tom is shocked but also determined that he will show him a different kind of life.

As William begins to thrive, so we learn a little more about Tom’s fragility too. As a young man, he lost his wife and their baby to scarlatina, a loss that affected him so deeply that he became almost a recluse, living in a small cottage beside the village graveyard with his dog Sam. His growing fondness for William leads him not only back into the arms of the Little Weirwold community, but also to question his continued self-imposed isolation. William is growing in confidence as he catches up academically and, for the first time in his life, makes a group of firm friends, particularly the flamboyant Jewish boy Zach, a fellow-evacuee, whose parents work in the theatre.

Some months into his stay with Tom, William receives a letter from his mother saying that she wants him to return home to London for a visit. William is reluctant and full of trepidation, but Tom persuades him that it is important he sees her, even though he has his own doubts about the wisdom of such a visit.

SPOILER ALERT:

If you want to give this to your children to read, it is important you know what happens in the story, but if you’re reading the book for yourself and prefer the suspense, don’t read any further.

On his return to London, William’s mother behaves strangely and after an initial, encouraging show of slight warmth, she soon returns to her old critical and abusive habits. When they finally return to the house in Deptford William learns that his mother has given birth to a baby girl while he’s been away. While going out to collect William she left the baby alone in the flat with her mouth taped so the neighbours did not hear her crying. It is bleak and upsetting at this point.

Meanwhile, Tom, preoccupied with worry about William, decides, on an impulse, to go to London, sensing the boy might be in danger. It is an arduous journey, but he finally finds William. After a spell in hospital, where we learn that William’s mother has taken her own life, Tom effectively ‘kidnaps’ William after being told that the boy will most likely have to go into a children’s home following his discharge.

There is another sad thread to the plot involving Zach, something else to be aware of, but I’ll save that one from here.

I read the second half of this book in practically one sitting; I could not put it down! It is a tough read, though it does have a happy ending. It is quite dark in parts, but not in a frightening way. It will give young readers an insight into what life was, IS, like for some children, and an idea of the different ways abuse can manifest itself. It also shows that children can develop resilience and hope, and find happiness after even the most difficult start.

For that reason, I would recommend for no younger than 10-11, and to read it with your child, or at least in advance so you can handle any questions they might have. Twelve to thirteen year olds might like it too. It is plainly written with accessible language.

Highly recommended for adult readers!

Facebook Reading Challenge – November choice

I thoroughly enjoyed October’s choice for the Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was children’s fiction. I chose Michelle Magorian’s prize-winning 1981 novel Goodnight Mister Tom which had me in tears in more than one place. Beautifully written, dealing with difficult subjects for children, in a sensitive and straightforward way. I’ll post a more detailed review later in the week in the concluding posts in my #KeepKidsReading themed series.

As it’s already 5th November, however, I wanted to post this month’s choice for the Facebook Reading Challenge. Our theme is a book from the new decade; you may recall that back in January my theme was something from the last decade. I chose Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which I absolutely loved. There seem to have been some truly landmark books published this year, some of which I have already read, for example Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Maggie O’Farell’s Hamnet (look out for my review of that one soon), and some that are on my TBR list, such as the final part in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet Summer and Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. There have also been a clutch of very exciting first novels, and it is one of these that I have chosen for this month on the reading challenge.

Abi Daré’s The Girl with the Louding Voice was published at the beginning of October, so it’s pretty hot off the presses (but happily already available in paperback). It has had some fantastic reviews and keeps popping up on my suggested reads from various bookseller’s newsletters I subscribe to. I normally eschew these as intensive sales pitches, but I think this one will be worth it. The main character is Adunni, a 14 year old Nigerian girl living in a small village, who dreams of getting an education and creating the life she wants for herself. As a young girl, however, she is considered little more than property to be traded in this patriarchal society, and is sold by her father to an older man in Lagos who abuses her sexually and where she is enslaved in his household. It is a story of how she escapes from this seemingly impossible situation through courage and tenacity.

This book is an international bestseller already and has had some amazing reviews, so it is one I cannot overlook. In these challenging times, when people of colour are having to fight for their rights and are doing so under the banner of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and where women cannot rest on their laurels, assuming equality has been won, this feels like an important book. Globally (according to the UN), little more than a third of girls receive a secondary education, one of the key drivers of public health and economic growth. This cause has been somewhat forgotten in the high-octane news environment we are living in right now, but the problem has by no means gone away. Perhaps stories can keep it at the top of the agenda.

So, I will step down from my soapbox now and go back to some quiet reading.

Do join me in this month’s challenge – I think it’s going to be another good one!

#KeepKidsReading – Building your children’s library #3 – 6-8 year olds

It’s over a year since I started this series of posts and it seems a particularly good week to be picking them up again. It is half term in my area, as I think it is across most of the country, and with so many entertainment options closed, play dates banned, travel plans abandoned and family visits off the agenda, parents may be at their wit’s end wondering how to entertain their children. Oh, and the weather is not that great either! Books come into their own at a time like this, especially when accompanied by hot chocolate after a walk kicking the leaves or collecting conkers. My kids still love this kind of stuff even though they are teenagers. So, if you are thinking about adding to your children’s library or looking for some classics to get them into this half term holiday, here is my list of suggestions for 6-8 year olds. I have posted previously about books for younger ones.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and my approach to children’s reading is rather like my approach to parenting – as a parent you are not raising kids, you are raising the world’s future adults (decision-makers, carers, teachers, leaders) – no pressure there then! – and building a good reading habit is not just about entertaining or educating them, it’s about fostering a habit that will serve them their whole lives. The mental health benefits of reading are well-known (and I have written about them on here many times) – it’s relaxing, it reduces stress, helps sleep, etc, etc. There is nothing not to like about reading. And it might just be the cheapest activity your children engage in! Libraries may not be too accessible at the moment, but secondhand bookshops are and, like most retailers on the high street, are crying out for your business.

My last post on this topic looked at books for 4-7 year olds and I emphasised the fact that at that age, there may well be some precocious readers who can cope with chapter books (particularly at the older end of the spectrum), but they still benefit hugely from pictures. By the time we get to the 6-8 year olds they are generally moving out of the ‘infant’ and into the ‘junior’ stages at school (or years two to three in more modern parlance!). They are also taking tests at the end of year two, and moving from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2, so there is a bit of a step change.

Between the ages of six and eight, your child will probably be moving onto wordier books, perhaps with some chapters and definitely still with pictures. You will also notice the books getting slightly smaller and feeling a little cheaper (and hopefully they are a little cheaper!). They are more likely to be books your children read once, rather than repeatedly. They will read much more independently BUT, and this is a big one, they will STILL, yes STILL benefit from being read to – being read to, is not just about the text, the vocabulary and the ability to read, it’s about so much more: one to one time with a loved one, physical closeness and shared interest.

Many books for this age group, as I say, are likely to be read once or a couple of times, but still there are some classics for this age group, which will be ‘keepers’. Please also note that many of these books have some wonderful film and TV adaptations that can supplement the reading. Here are my suggestions:

1. The Secret Seven (1949) by Enid Blyton – the first in a fifteen book series. I know there are plenty of Blyton detractors, but I guarantee this is one that the grandparents will love reading with them!

2. Horrid Henry (1994) by Francesca Simon – the first in a twenty-five book series. NB: the film adaptation of this is possibly one of the worst films I have ever seen, so avoid!

3. The Sheep-Pig (1983) by Dick King-Smith – the book upon which the film Babe was based

4. The BFG (1982) by Roald Dahl

5. Charlotte’s Web (1952) by EB White

6. Pippi Longstocking (1945) by Astrid Lindgren – several books in the series

7. The Worst Witch (1974) by Jill Murphy – first in a series of eight books

8. The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame – surely no children’s library is complete without this book?

9. The Family from One End Street (1937) by Eve Garnett – one of the earliest examples of social realism in children’s literature

10. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) by Judith Kerr

All of the above provide a starting point, of course, and even as I finish typing there are authors and titles popping into my mind that are not listed. But you have to start somewhere!

What would you add to my list of classic books for 6-8 year olds?

Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, Manchester

As I write this, it looks very much as if Greater Manchester, where I live, will be placed in the highest, Tier 3, level of restrictions in the coming days. There’s a lot of politics about, but let me tell you there is also a lot of frustration and anger about too. There is also a lot of division, differing perspectives, conflicting interpretations of data and statistics. But around me the human cost is evident – businesses are closing, I know people who have lost work, people under strain from not seeing their loved ones, and others paralysed by fear of the virus. One person’s asymptomatic response is another’s death sentence. We find ourselves at a difficult moment and we all have to find our way through this conundrum as best we can.

In the midst of all this confusion and anxiety, I took myself back in time last week to one of my favourite places in Manchester, but one which I have not visited for some time – the former home of Elizabeth Gaskell in Plymouth Grove, Rusholme, Manchester. It is close to the Manchester Royal Infirmary, The University of Manchester, and the Pankhurst Centre, a little house, in the middle of the hospital campus, that was the birthplace of the Suffragette movement (also now a museum).

Elizabeth Gaskell’s house is a fairly modest property that has had a chequered history. Elizabeth’s unmarried daughters Meta and Julia lived there until they died, and after Meta’s death in 1913, an attempt to preserve it as a memorial to the author was unsuccessful and it was sold and its contents dispersed. It continued to be occupied as a family home until it was bought by Manchester University in 1968 who used it as accommodation for overseas students. It fell into some disrepair (though thankfully not too much irreversible ‘renovation’ was done) but was finally purchased by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust in 2004 and a project was set up to restore it as a museum to Elizabeth Gaskell.

It is still a work in progress and it is really only the ground floor rooms that have been set up as they would have been in Gaskell’s time. While I was there, I was shown work underway to restore what is believed to have been Elizabeth’s bedroom, but other rooms have been given over to research, educational spaces and meeting rooms. There is currently a very interesting exhibition about John Ruskin on display until the end of the year. The rooms have been painstakingly restored and furniture and artefacts either belonged to the family or are the Trusts’s best guess at what they would have had around them.

I was looking for some peace, tranquility and inspiration there and I found it. I was the only visitor that afternoon, and whilst it saddens me that so few people are going out to see the many interesting and beautiful places that remain open to visitors and safe, I had to admit that having the place to myself felt like a treat. Numbers are controlled and all the volunteer guides are well protected with PPE. You have to book your slot online and the £5.50 admission price gives you access for a full year. There is a tea room and a huge selection of secondhand books for sale.

Most of all there is a sense of dedication, to the memory of the author and her remarkable achievements (she died suddenly at the age of 55).

I recommend a visit to this wonderful house. The arts and culture are suffering terribly at this difficult time with opening restrictions, the cost of being Covid-safe, and reduced (or in many cases zero) numbers. Book a visit, you won’t regret it.

https://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/