I may not be buying any books for myself in November, but it’s getting to that time of year when I start thinking about Christmas gifts for family and friends, and my customers do too. As you’d expect, November always sees an increase of requests for recommendations at the shop, and I like to have an arsenal of excellent picks to draw on when someone asks. These are a few new and old books for little people that are floating my boat right now (and please, dear reader, while you’re shopping for littlies, dont be ashamed to have a read yourself. There are some truly outstanding writers working in this area that you would be remiss to pass over!).
My first pick is anything and everything by Diana Wynne Jones. I’m not going to limit this to a particular title, as she is enormously prolific and all of her novels that I have read have been equally engaging. Diana’s work was my big kids book discovery of the year. Of course, her books have been around forever (ok, since the 1970’s), but somehow as both a kid and as a children’s bookseller, I managed to miss out on reading her work. Until now. This year, I’ve devoured five or six of her many novels for young readers, and I’ve found myself in the presence of a true master of the form. The scope of her imagination was vast, and her prose imbued with humour, the most vivid imagery, and a wicked pace that keeps you turning pages past bedtime. Most interesting to me, though, is that her young protagonists are capable of the truly nuanced insight that is so often missing in writing for children. Kids comprehend more than we adults realise, and Diana’s young heroes exemplify this startling awareness of the world of adult manipulations and schemes in a way that is utterly realistic and essential to the creation of a strong child protagonist. I also appreciate the generous number of talking cats that appear in her novels. You could safely pick up any of Diana’s books and be in for a magical time, but if you’re looking for a place to start, consider the books set in the Chrestomanci world (my favourite is The Lives of Christopher Chant), or Howl’s Moving Castle. Perfect for clever middle to upper primary readers, and grown ups who may have forgotten how to exercise their magical abilities.
Something for older readers, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This is going to turn into another gushing rhapsody, because I love Maggie Stiefvater even more than I love Diana Wynne Jones. Look out! Once again, you could safely pick up any of Maggie’s books and be in for a transformative read, but for this Christmas, I’ll be focusing on her newest series, The Raven Cycle, and its first book, The Raven Boys. Set in a small Virginia town, The Raven Boys proposes that ancient magic and dark power may lurk beneath the most apparently safe and suburban setting. Transposing Arthurian legends into a contemporary American setting may sound far-fetched, but Maggie pulls it off with her extensive knowledge of myth and folklore, and her ability to create truly three dimensional characters, in a truly three dimensional setting that seethes with fragmented familial bonds, imbedded class privilege, adolescent rage, and dangerous, magical possibilities. Also, lots of sexy filthy muscle cars. Are you hooked yet? If not, look only to her writing. No one, no one, writes so lyrically for teenagers as Maggie Stiefvater (in fact, just this week I had a customer say that since her daughter started reading Maggie’s work, her english marks had vastly improved. It’s even educational!). You’ll become so lost in her beautiful prose that you’ll be carried away and practically eaten by goblins before you know it. This one is definitely for the older readers, teenagers and up.
As a children’s bookseller, I always have an eye out for alphabet books that aren’t completely lame, and they can be few and far between. Alphabetical Sydney by Antonia Pesenti and Hilary Bell is pretty much, in my opinion, the ultimate ABC book – beautiful art, an interesting theme, enough text to keep the grown ups interested on the 20th read-through, and, as you’d hope, all twenty-six letters in their correct order. This is so much more than an alphabet primer, though. As a born and raised Sydneysider, I’m pleased to say that finally, finally a book for children has come along that really captures my city, from the dazzling harbour that is internationally renowned, to the mouldy terraces that most of us Inner Westies actually reside in. Cheeky, fun and affectionate in its treatment of the city, it has the jacarandas and the yum cha, the endless renovations and the bats. My very favourite page has to be P is for Parramatta Road, about a Sydney institution that will never make Lonely Planet’s list of must-see Sydney sights, but this smoggy, traffic-heavy artery and the sometimes frankly weird businesses that line it is a fact of life in Sydney, a constant and recognisable image that is no less a part of the city than Bondi Icebergs or the Manly ferry. This is the essence of Sydney, and a great gift for visitors and Sydney dwellers, big people and little people alike.
And finally, the sweetest, funniest, and most informative book I’ve read all year, Architecture According to Pigeons by Speck Lee Tailfeather. The pigeon perspective is not given a lot of air time, and though I would gladly trade in all Australia’s pigeons for that other maligned urban pest, the grey squirrel (or a squirrel of any other colour – red, black, whatever – Australia’s delicate island ecosystem would be cursing my name, but you can’t deny the cuteness of squirrels), I do think pigeons are probably more switched on, particularly when it comes to the subtleties of the built environment, than we give them credit for. This wonderful book sets to out to argue nothing less, introducing readers to some of world’s most interesting architectural marvels as seen by the birds who dwell on and around their walls. To pigeons, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the Silver Squiggle (and isn’t it?), the Colosseum the Murder Ring, and, most fittingly, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is the Forest of Dreams. Educational but never dry, Architecture According to Pigeons will make you open your eyes to the city around you, and may even leave you feeling a little more tender towards those pesky grey birds. An interesting read for the 7-ish and up crowd.
With so many wonderful children’s books out there, War and Peace hardly stands a chance! We should occasionally read something grown up, though, so do come back in a couple of weeks’ time for my picks of the year for the big people in your life. My all-time favourite fiction writer has a new book out this Christmas, so it promises to be an epic, adjective-heavy post!