Long before Harry Potter, The Box of Delights remade children’s fantasy

Written in 1935, John Masefield’s classic blended ancient magic with modern adventure and set a template for the work of JK Rowling and many others

My first memory of “appointment to view” TV is as indelible as it is vivid. It was the final episode of the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, which I caught only by imploring my mother to let me stay for another half an hour while visiting a friend. The early special effects in the style of Doctor Who were as stardust to my young eyes; I still recall the thrill of watching Robert Stephens (as the villainous Abner Brown) fall to his watery fate. It wasn’t only the state-of-the-art animation and the compelling performances that captured my imagination, but also the magic of the story.

Some 33 years later, when I found myself writing the first stage adaptation of ...

The Pomegranate Tree by Vanessa Altin – a child’s-eye view of war-torn Syria

This fictional diary of a young Kurdish teenager is harrowing, but for every barbarity there is a moment of courage or kindness There are not many books for young people that begin with an attempted beheading of the narrator’s two-year-old sister. But while this is not a typical children’s book, it tells the story of some very typical children – who like playing with their pets, are fans of Harry Potter and who long for an ordinary childhood of family meals and laughter. Except these children can only remember such things. The book, illustrated by Faye Moorhouse, is written in the form of a diary by 13-year-old Dilvan or “Dilly”, a Kurdish teenager living in a Syrian village close to the Turkish border. Dilly has seen her father and brothers disappear to fight against a terrorising army referred to only as “the ratmen”, because of their whiskery beards. And while ...

Piers Torday: finishing his father’s last novel

When Paul Torday died before completing work on The Death of an Owl, his son, children’s author Piers Torday, faced a dilemma: dare he do it for him? It was the start of a new year and my father and I were trying to avoid discussing death. To be precise, his. He had been diagnosed with stage 3 kidney cancer seven years earlier, just months after the publication of his first book, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. His illness had stalked his subsequent publishing career like a bitter, mordant rival, thwarting him where possible. Symptoms made sitting at a desk to write painful and uncomfortable. Toxic side effects from treatments drained him of energy. Hospital appointments nixed literary festival invitations. Yet he never complained, and, thanks in part to the same toxic drugs, did produce, remarkably, seven novels and two novellas over the next seven years. But now his system could no longer tolerate the medication, and he ...

Beetle Boy by MG Leonard review – a fizzing, delightful debut

In this creepy crawly tale, beetles are the new kings of the insect library There are more species of beetle than any other order of animals, representing a quarter of living creatures on this planet. Why it has taken them this long to get starring roles in a children’s book is a mystery, although their appeal to younger readers is not. From a tiny ladybird alighting on a thumb, to a shimmering violet ground beetle scuttling out from an upturned rock, they are ideal objects of study for any nascent naturalist; not too slimy and less likely to sting than some other creepy-crawlies. And yet in literature it is other insects that have grabbed the top jobs so far. Aesop granted an ant wisdom, EB White deployed the life cycle of a barn spider to heartbreaking effect and Roald Dahl transformed a centipede into a top ballooning companion in James and the Giant Peach. But the new kings ...

Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford review – heart, humour and a dash of existentialism

Al’s journey back in time to save his father will delight young adventurers and young scientists alikeAt a time when the government is attempting to drive a wedge between the teaching of science and arts subjects, it’s a relief to be reminded that children’s authors suffer no such silly prejudices. This year has already seen the publication of not one, but two excellent adventures for primary age children that explain complex key scientific theories in straightforward and comprehensible ways, but use them to create adventures that will hook either a young putative storyteller or a young putative scientist with equal fascination. First came Christopher Edge’s heart-warming The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, exploring quantum physics as a way to tackle grief, and now comes Ross Welford’s ambitious and satisfying debut, which does the same with time travel. Al’s (short for Albert, as in you know who) engineer father ...

A Song for Ella Grey is a children’s book – and a great one

Children’s author Lynne Reid Banks says David Almond’s novel is ‘not a book for children’ – but young readers must come to their own conclusions

Alice in Wonderland, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, was for a long time banned from classrooms in New Hampshire for references to sexual fantasies and masturbation. Try any classic children’s text, from Alice to Harry Potter – copies of which have been burned in protest – and you’ll find that somewhere in the world, it has been attacked or banned. Piglet in Winnie the Pooh might be construed as an offence to Muslims. The persistent nudity of the central child character in Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen is offensive to some modern eyes. And don’t even get me started on Heather Has Two Mommies …

Good writing for children will help them navigate adult experience with awareness and understanding

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Guardian children’s fiction prize 2015 shortlist – a judge’s perspective

Myths, magic and Treasure Island-style mystery - classic themes are brought to vivid new life in this year’s contenders

The best children’s fiction makes no compromises on literary or intellectual ambition, but instead finds a way to make mature themes accessible and compelling for younger readers. That’s certainly what my fellow judges and I found with the shortlist for this year’s Guardian children’s fiction prize, announced today. They are four very contemporary books that also bring to mind classics from the past, all examining how the stories we tell not only rewrite our histories, but can also change our future:

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