Wednesday 9 December 2015

Uprooted: a Canadian war story by Lynne Reid Banks

Uprooted: a Canadian war story by Lynne Reid Banks (HarperCollins, 2014)

28 chapters; 335 pages with chapter heading illustrations

Subjects: World War Two, Canada, evacuees, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

I went into this book with few expectations, maybe because the subject of evacuees has been written about so much already. But after a few chapters, I realised I haven’t read many books about the experience from a Canadian perspective.  

One reason I liked it is that it is not only a war story but also a coming-of-age story that covers many topics: loneliness, friendship, the degree of freedom that children enjoyed back then, a growing understanding of adult relationships, the difficulty of maintaining a marriage under the stresses of distance and war. It also gives a memorable picture of the Canadian landscape (especially in winter), so different from the English countryside.

It’s summer 1940, and as war rages across Europe, ten-year-old Lindy travels by boat and then train to Saskatoon, Canada, with her Mother and her smart cousin Cameron. Canada is a long way from home but it is also full of exciting new adventures. This story is inspired by the author’s own childhood experience and her time in Canada, which must be why many of the details sound so convincing: icebergs floating in the Atlantic Ocean, the three-day train trip across the plains, playground games, Hallowe’en, skating and tobogganing in winter and holidays at the lake in summer.

Lindy’s reactions are convincing; she keeps being offered Coke to drink, but finds it sweet and sickly; she revels in a hot deep bubble bath after “the three-inches-of-hot-water ones we’d been rationed to at home”; she marvels at the powdery snow, so different from wet English snow, and the deceptive cold that can give you frostbite without your noticing.  She picks up Canadian words (candies for sweets) and relishes all the new foods: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, waffles with maple syrup, pork spare ribs cooked with brown sugar.  

She and Cameron have to cope with feelings of guilt at being safe and far from danger when London is being bombarded by bombs, as shown on the newsreels at the cinema. Is it okay for them to be happy? How do they come to terms with not being there? 

Author’s website
Lynne Reid Banks’ best-known book for children is probably The Indian in the cupboard. On her website, you can “Read my latest news, my interview with myself, and see an array of photographs and videos, and you can even listen to me read from some of my books.”

I couldn’t resist the interview, which she wrote for the very good reason thatI've been interviewed many times, but the interviewers hardly ever ask me the questions I wish they would! So here is me, interviewing myself.” (And it’s a very funny interview!)

Excuse me.
I thought you were supposed to be interviewing me.
Sorry, I got a bit carried away. After all, writing for a living is a great life, if you don't weaken, and can keep the ideas coming.
Aren't you going to ask me which is my favourite book, and to give tips for young writers, and all that?
No. How could we have a favourite book, we love them all and are proud of them, just like our children.

Other books you might like
There are lots of other books about evacuees, such as Ronnie’s war by Bernard Ashley, Carrie’s war by Nina Bawden and When the sirens wailed by Noel Streatfeild.

NZ connections
I made a nice personal link on pg 175 where Lindy talks about how terrible her handwriting was because she was still “trying to learn Canadian cursive”.

Things I didn’t know
Lots of things! For starters, I didn’t know that evacuees to Canada were called “war guests”. This was apparently because “Canadians are usually very polite and nobody wanted to hurt our feelings by calling us evacuees”.

I didn’t know that government war time restrictions meant that women who went to Canada with their children weren’t allowed to take more than ten pounds per person out of the country. This small amount was soon exhausted, so they were completely reliant on the charity of the people who offered them a home. This often put them in difficult situations, and eventually so many families complained to their Members of Parliament that the restrictions were lifted. 

I vaguely remembered hearing about a ship carrying evacuees that was torpedoed and sunk. In the book this ship isn’t named, but it could have been the City of Benares – or the Volendam.

I liked the details about the First Peoples that Lindy found out from visiting her neighbours, and was sorry when they disappeared quite abruptly from the story.

I liked the description of the river ice breaking up at the end of winter, and how the children laid bets on the day and time it would happen.

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Wednesday 25 November 2015

The machine gunners by Robert Westall

The machine gunners by Robert Westall (Macmillan, 1975)

18 chapters; 189 pages

Subjects: World War Two, England, bombing raids, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

The machine gunners is set in north-eastern England in 1940-41. We often read about the bombing on London - the Blitz and the deadly V2s later in the war – but forget how other parts of England were affected. Tyneside (around Newcastle, or the fictional Garmouth in this story) is surprisingly close to Germany on the map, and it was the focus of many bombing raids at this time, often as devastating as the ones that were targeting London.

Chas is one of the local kids who hang around bomb sites, foraging for items (machine gun bullets, pieces of shrapnel, tail fins, nose cones) to add to their collections of war souvenirs. Their parents, worn out by sleepless nights, food shortages and warden duties, don’t care too much what they are up to, as long as they are safe in the Anderson shelters when the alarm goes.

Then Chas finds a crashed German plane in the woods, with a dead German gunner slumped inside, and the machinegun turret still attached. He calls in a gang of others to help – Cem (short for Cemetery Jones), Clogger, Audrey and Nicky - and they end up with not only the machine gun, but also an elaborate underground bomb shelter in the grounds of a ruined house and Rudi, a captured German airman. Meanwhile, the local Home Guard officer is aware that the machine gun is missing, suspects that local kids are involved and is desperately trying to retrieve it before disaster strikes.

The author comments that the plot was inspired by a newspaper article about a gang of Dutch children who found a wrecked Allied bomber long after the war, in 1969. They managed to “remove its rear gun turret, transport it several miles to their den, clean and repair it and were about to fire it when the Dutch police finally caught up with them”.  He adds that one night in 1941, some people on Tyneside really believed the German invasion had begun.

Some of the dialogue is written in dialect, especially Clogger’s (from Glasgow), which isn’t always easy to follow. But it is could work well as a book for a teacher to read out to a class. The idea of children working together, with little parental supervision, and finding warmth and acceptance in their gang, provides a very different slant on war. 

It has been a popular book over the years, especially in English schools, and there are lots of different covers. 

A musical adaptation was first staged in 1998, and later appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

FreelanceProduction: The Machine Gunners
About the author
Robert Westall, according to the blurb on the back flap, “was a schoolboy in Tyneside during the war years” (later he went into the army and then became a teacher) which must be why the passages about the bombing raids and their aftermath – like when Chas and his dad make their way across town to try and find out if his grandparents are still alive - seem so authentic.

Other books you might like
Ronnie’s war by Bernard Ashley (the scene where Ronnie goes to look for his mother is another dramatic description of the aftermath of an air raid).

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know that school started late if the raids had gone on late the previous night (in the opening chapter, Chas wakes in the air raid shelter after a raid that went on past midnight, so school doesn’t start until 10.30am). I didn’t know how important it was to have your insurance policies with you when you ran for the shelter in your back year, in case your house was destroyed. And I didn’t realise that wardens were unpaid and had to do their warden duties at night on top of a job during the day.

NZ connections
The final chapters – with the arrival of the Polish Free Army 
and non-arrival of the Germans – have semi-comic moments but pose a real question about what you would do and how your family might react to a possible invasion. In WW2, many people in Australia and New Zealand feared that a Japanese invasion was imminent, and I’ve heard stories from people about how their families had planned to retreat to farms in the countryside if that happened. 

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Monday 9 November 2015

The singing tree by Kate Seredy

The singing tree written and illustrated by Kate Seredy (George G Harrap & Co, first published 1940)

11 chapters; 216 pages with full page and chapter heading black-and-white illustrations

Subjects: World War One, Hungary, Jews, Christmas, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

I had to request this book from the library's Central Stack section (in other words: “old books not borrowed much any more”). I read it as a child, and the title has stuck in my head, but I didn’t recall exactly what it was about, apart from a vague idea that it was set in Eastern Europe.  

In fact it is set in a small rural village on the Hungarian plains, where 12-year-old Kate lives with her 13-year-old cousin Jancsi on his father’s farm. The opening chapter shows Kate and Jancsi entering the village store, kept by Uncle Moses, so Kate can buy some red satin ribbons for her hat. The children are puzzled and intrigued by Uncle Mo’s method of book-keeping, which relies on his good memory and knowledge of the local people, and involves complicated deals and shrewd bargaining. It’s interesting to think about how this would have read on the book’s first publication in 1940, when the Jews in Europe were already under threat.

The villagers’ way of life is embedded in tradition, hinted at by the costumes in the illustrations. The main street, lined with “freshly whitewashed houses and blooming geraniums in the blue and green windowboxes”, echoes to the cheerful and peaceful sound of “the laughter of playing children, mixed with the cackling of hens, the honk-honk of waddling geese, the yips and barks of dogs”. Wedding celebrations involve the whole village, and run according to a carefully scripted programme, from the calling of the guests at first light to the ceremonies of the Seeking and the Lead Me Home at the end of the night of feasting and dancing; there are herds of horses on the plains and sheep and lambs – “hundreds and thousands of them… like a big white cloud rolling over the meadows.” 

But there are rumours, mutterings and threats like tiny puffs of cloud in a blue sky, and once the storm of WW1 breaks, this calm and peace is threatened forever.

The first real warning sign washes over Kate’s sleepy head as she dozes on the way home from the wedding in the horse-drawn wagon. At a brief stop in front of Uncle Moses’ house, his son Aaron says something that makes her father exclaim in alarm: “Francis Ferdinand had been shot this afternoon – somewhere in Bosnia”.  The adults begin to speak strange and sinister words, “words with a vaguely ugly meaning. ‘Assassination… rights of minorities… ultimatum to Serbia... mobilization.’” Soon not only Hungary but all Europe is at war. (This is at pg 99, so almost halfway through the story.)

This book also led me to an interesting review website: kidlithistory ("Everything I need to know about history, I learned through children's literature".) 

Where is Hungary? Look it up on a map (and look for a map of Hungary in 1914 as well).

About the author: 
I couldn't find much biographical info about Kate Seredy, but according to LibraryThing, she was born in Budapest in 1896 and served as a nurse in WW1. She emigrated to the USA in 1922, learned English, ran a children's bookstore and worked as a commercial illustrator and painter. Although she wrote several (award-winning) books, she always thought of herself as an illustrator, not a writer. She died in 1975. 

Other books you might like:
The endless steppe by Esther Hauzig
A winter's day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik is set in Poland and Russia. 
I am David by Anne Holm also begins in an unnamed concentration camp that seems to be in eastern Europe. 

Things I didn’t know
Anything about life in Hungary before WW1. (We talk about the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WW1, but I’d never thought much about the Hungarian side of it.)

The singing tree is a sequel to Kate Seredy's earlier book, The good master

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Caesar the Anzac dog by Patricia Stroud, illustrated by Bruce Potter

Caesar the Anzac dog by Patricia Stroud, illustrated by Bruce Potter (Harper Collins, 2003)

40 pages with sepia illustrations

Subjects: World War One, France, dogs, animals, mascots, junior fiction (Year 2-6)

This book is based on the true story of Caesar, which was told to the author, Patricia Stroud, by her mother, Ida. 

Ida (aged four) was in the crowd when Caesar the bulldog, as official mascot, led the Rifle Brigade down Queen St in Auckland to board the ships that would take them to Egypt and the Western Front. As described in the book, Ida donated her blue ribbon for Caesar to wear. She gave it to her uncle Tom who was Caesar’s handler and he tied it onto Caesar’s collar.

Caesar worked during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 as a Red Cross dog. These dogs helped the stretcher-bearers to rescue wounded soldiers at night from No man’s land, the area in-between the trenches of the two opposing sides. They were trained to look for something that belonged to the man, such as a coat or cap, bring that item back to the stretcher bearers and then lead them to the wounded soldier.

Caesar was shot and killed in action. His handler, Tom, was temporarily blinded by mustard gas and sent to hospital in England. He married one of the nurses and they returned home on a hospital ship.

The family history aspect of the story is underlined by the way it is told to three boys, James, Brendon and Michael, who are visiting their great-grandmother (Ida) in the summer holidays. She tells them about the parade, and how her other uncles also went off to war.

The book was reprinted in 2009, with extra content, as Caesar: The True Story of a Canine ANZAC Hero ("A recount of the life of the bulldog that became the official mascot of the 4th Battalion of the NZ Rifle Brigade").

About the author
According to the Harper Collins website: “Patricia Stroud is a mother and grandmother, who has researched the facts behind a much loved family story to record a little-known aspect of New Zealand’s military history. As a volunteer, she spends many hours interviewing war veterans and recording their stories for the oral history archives of her local museum. Patricia and her mother Ida both live in Auckland.”

There is an interview with Patricia in the New Zealand herald, and here she is visiting the children of Botany Downs school

About the illustrator
Bruce Potter (here is his Storylines profile) has illustrated many other books, including The Donkey Man by Glyn Harper, Grandad's Medals by Tracy Duncan, Soldier in the Yellow socks by Janice Marriott and My Grandfather's War by Glyn Harper. (And who knew he is also "an internationally ranked powerlifter"??)

Other books you might like 
The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett and Trish Bowles is an appealing picture book based on the true story of a World War One mascot. The red poppy by David Hill, illustrated by Fifi Colston, tells the story of Nipper the messenger dog. 

This unusual vintage clip shows a French Bulldog working on the Western Front in France in 1917.

The article about Caesar on the NZ History website includes this photograph of his collar (with an incorrect spelling of his name), now held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum (where you can also buy a soft toy Caesar!).

Jack, the New Zealand Engineers' canine mascot in France, World War I
Jack, the New Zealand Engineers' canine mascot in France, World War I. Ref: 1/2-013104-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Bull, George Robert, 1910-1966 (Photographer) : Maori Battalion soldier and dog Paddy the mascot, Christmas Day, Maadi camp, Egypt
WW2 Maori Battalion soldier and dog Paddy, the mascot, share some pork from the hangi on Christmas Day at Maadi Camp, Egypt; Ref: DA-04880-F. Alexander Turnbull Library,

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Wednesday 7 October 2015

My brother’s keeper by Tom and Tony Bradman

My brother’s keeper by Tom and Tony Bradman (A & C Black, 2014)

11 chapters; 111 pages including a few pages of historical notes

Subjects: World War One, France, deserters, boy soldiers, junior fiction (Year 5-8? but shelved in the YA section at library so maybe meant for older but less proficient readers.)

Set in Flanders in 1915, this is the story of young Alfie Barnes. We suspect he is very young right from the opening sentence, when he stands on the fire-step of the trench and “wished he were taller”. He’s been working in Covent Garden markets since he left school at 12, but still looks young for his actual age of 15. When he signs up, claiming to be 19, the sergeant at the recruiting centre grins and says, “I suppose I’ll have to take your word for it.”

In the trenches, his older mates Ernie, Cyril and George look after him. They’ve been in action long enough to learn to keep their heads down, but Alfie is naively excited, hoping to have a go at “the Hun” and yearning for action. When it comes, of course, it’s not what he expects.

There’s not much to tell Ernie, Cyril and George apart, and I wasn’t convinced that a 15-year-old in the army would have spoken up as Alfie did. But there are good, clear descriptions of exactly what life in the trenches was like: how the men boiled their kettles, for example, what they ate and what they wore.

This is not a long story and there are other books that explore these issues more deeply. Perhaps it might serve as a good easy-to-read introduction to the topic. Our local library shelved it in the young adult section, so maybe it is meant for older but less confident readers.  

You can read an extract from Chapter One here.

Author’s website
Tony Bradman writes poetry and fiction for children, including the Dilly the Dinosaur and Swoppers series. He now writes in partnership with his son, Tom Bradman.

Other books you might like:
Other books that I've reviewed about boy soldiers include Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens, The last Anzac by Gordon Winch, illustrated by Harriet Bailey, One boy’s war by Lynn Huggins-Cooper, illustrated by Ian Benfold Haywood and My mother's eyes: the story of a boy soldier by Mark Wilson.

Things I didn’t know
Every book, no matter how short, can often tell you something you didn’t know about WW1. I learnt from this one that soldiers didn’t have to salute the officers in the front line (but they did if they were sent with a message to HQ.) And I learnt about applying camouflage before a night raid: how they mixed a black powder (burnt cork) with wet mud from the walls of the dugout and smeared the resulting thick paste over their faces.   

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Saturday 26 September 2015

The Flambards trilogy by K.M. Peyton

The Flambards trilogy by K.M. Peyton (Flambards, The edge of the cloud, Flambards in summer) (Penguin, 1980)

Flambards was first published in 1967 and the sequels in 1969; the trilogy runs to just over 500 pages

Subjects: World War One, England, flying, pilots, class system, hunting, horses, women in war, young adult fiction (Year 9-12)

Winner of the 1970 Guardian award, and later made into a film, the Flambards trilogy captures a fascinating slice of history, not just the history of WW1 which is largely peripheral to the main action – mostly shown by men signing up and leaving, returning or failing to return from the front - but also the history of social attitudes, especially concerning women and the class system. Reading it makes you realise how often books about WW1 start in the middle of the war, or at the very beginning, but seldom before it. 

The three parts of the first book, Flambards, are set in 1908, 1910 and 1912. With the benefit of hindsight we know that war is looming, and some of the characters suspect that something bad is coming, but the story stays focused on Christina Parsons, 12 years old when the book opens, an orphan but an heiress, due to come into a fortune at 21. 

Having spent her childhood moving from household to household, Christina is summoned by her Uncle Russell to join him and his two sons, Mark and William, at Flambards, a crumbling estate famous for having the best stables in the county, where the year revolves around the hunting season (the opening sentence is: “The fox was running easily”) and far more care and attention is lavished on the horses than on the house. Uncle Russell, crippled after a hunting accident, angry, frustrated and bullying, rules the house from the study and despises his younger son, Will, who hates hunting so much that he goes to terrible lengths to ensure he will never have to hunt again.

Christina, self-possessed and used to looking after herself from an early age, copes with her new strange surroundings but she is convinced that “they’re all mad”. Everything changes for her when her uncle insists she learns to ride (under the careful tutelage of Dick, the stable boy) and she discovers how much she loves it; like her mother before her, she is “a hunting Russell”. With Mark, she goes out riding and hunting all through the hunting season and returns to talk over each day’s events with Russell over dinner, while Will sits by, mute.

In the two-year jumps between each part of this book, Christina, Mark, Will and Dick all get older and there are more changes. Will, a gifted mathematician, is besotted with the new flying machines. Dick is given his notice, a dreadful thing to happen in the days before social security when poverty and the workhouse posed real threats and families could easily fall through the cracks and disappear. Christina, growing up in a house without women apart from the cook and maid, and ignorant of matters that today’s children would understand at a much younger age, is often at a loss in situations where nobody will explain the truth or meaning to her. She doesn’t understand Will’s views on the inequality between their lives and those of the servants, and thinks it impossible for a servant girl to become pregnant before marriage, but she is brave and resilient, determined, sensible and loyal, with a warm and loving heart.  

The second book, The edge of the cloud, leaves Flambards behind and explores the world of the young flying enthusiasts. Flambards in summer takes us back again, with a grown-up (21-year-old) Christina, to a world that has changed in so many ways because of the war.

I enjoyed the first two books more than the third, because – without revealing too much of later plot (or romantic) developments – the third one has more of an elegiac and introspective tone, overshadowed by death, loss and grief, without any of the excitement of flying, and also the character of the child Tizzy didn’t really work for me. But the three together give a powerful impression of how people’s lives changed so utterly in that decade from 1908 to 1918.

Here is Christina, watching a sunset in the peace of the countryside: 
“It made her more bitter, this peace, that while she was standing looking at everything that was the essence of the sentimental picture of home, which all the newspapers made out that the  ‘boys over there’ were fighting for, the fact that the boys over there were now dead and would never come home again made completely negative the sweetness of every flower and the balm of every sunset.”

These books with their long descriptive passages show the differences in writing for young people that have evolved over the last 40 years. On the other hand, I can remember skipping those long passages as a child reader. Did every child do that?
About the author
The bio at the front of the book says that K.M. Peyton was born in 1929, studied painting at Manchester Art School, lives in a village in Essex and enjoys sailing, riding and long distance walks.

Other books you might like
There are a number of book about horses in war, especially the Australian and NZ horses that travelled to Egypt, as well as Michael Morpurgo’s famous War horseElizabeth Wein's Rose under fire tells the story of a WW2 female pilot, but I haven't found many books that tell the stories of the early pilots (Biggles learns to fly is one.) The Flambards trilogy captures these heady days when flying was still new and largely untested, when aircraft were fragile and their design still a matter of experimentation, as were techniques like looping the loop, but accidents were common and often fatal. Some adventurous people paid to go up for a ride, others turned up in droves to watch competitions, but many ridiculed the new machines and doubted that they would ever replaces the horse and carriage.

Have you read it?
Have you read these books? Let me know what you think!

Friday 4 September 2015

Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer

Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Red Fox, 1999; first published Chatto and Windus, 1969)

3 parts; 198 pages with a few full-page black and white illustrations

Subjects: World War One, England, Armistice, VE Day, school, sisters, friends, time travel, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

This was one of my favourite books as a child, although I realise now that I read it as a time travel fantasy, with very little understanding of the historical background.

The New York Review has a succinct summary of the plot:
It’s natural to feel a little out of place when you’re the new girl, but when Charlotte Makepeace wakes up after her first night at boarding school, she’s baffled: everyone thinks she’s a girl called Clare Mobley, and even more shockingly, it seems she has traveled forty years back in time to 1918. In the months to follow, Charlotte wakes alternately in her own time and in Clare’s. And instead of having only one new set of rules to learn, she also has to contend with the unprecedented strangeness of being an entirely new person in an era she knows nothing about. Her teachers think she’s slow, the other girls find her odd, and, as she spends more and more time in 1918, Charlotte starts to wonder if she remembers how to be Charlotte at all. If she doesn’t figure out some way to get back to the world she knows before the end of the term, she might never have another chance.

On her blog, Penelope Farmer writes an interesting summary herself, describing the book as being “set in the kind of English boarding school my twin sister and I attended/were incarcerated in – take your pick – for part of the fifties.” No wonder the school scenes ring so true. The girls have very English names: Susannah, Vanessa, Janet, Elizabeth, Sarah, and there is a mystery about Sarah’s unexpected kindness to Charlotte, explained at the end.

(This is the school which Penelope and her sister went to, and which she used as the setting for the book, including the cedar tree and the glassed-over verandah that Charlotte climbs out onto.)

She adds that “the whole book turned – though I didn’t see that when I wrote it – on identity; how do people identify you as you?” and says this is “a particularly relevant question for twins in general, and still more so for two not identical but similar looking twins like my sister and me, quite different in character and ability – even opposites in many respects, she right-handed, me left - but always taken together not singly. This was another connection I did not make at the time I was writing.” (More on her twin sister below.)

The first clues about the war setting come with breakfast (“porridge… as solid as bread, much solider in lumps, and slippery too”) when Bunty tells Charlotte-as-Clare, “Miss Bite says it’s doing your bit, to eat things you don’t like… I don’t see how it hurts Germans myself, eating nasty porridge.” 

In September 1918, the war is drawing to a close. We as readers know it is nearly over, but the girls at school don’t, and it still affects their everyday lives. There are air raid alarms in the middle of the night, and an army training camp nearby with soldiers dressed in khaki, who “strolled casually about or marched stiffly up and down.”  Injured soldiers arrive home on the hospital trains. A girl with a German surname is ostracised by the others, and the teachers, girls and nearby villagers have fianc├ęs, fathers or sons away fighting in France; some of them won’t ever come back.  

Part Three only takes up about 25 pages but it brings the story to a perfect, poignant ending. 

You can find lots of lots of different covers, some of which are better than others.  

About the author
A number of excellent fiction writers are called Penelope. This writer is not Penelope Mortimer or Penelope Fitzgerald or (another of my favourites) Penelope Lively.

Penelope Farmer was born in 1939. At first glance, there isn’t a lot of information about her online, but the New York Review says that she published her first book of short stories for children, The China People, in 1960 and writes novels for adults and children, including several books about Charlotte and her sister Emma.  (We also had Emma in winter when I was a child, which I enjoyed - but not as much as Charlotte sometimes.)

There is some biographical material about her here (including more fascinating twin info about the circumstances of her birth).

However, an absorbing article in the Guardian reveals a lot about her family life. Written in 2007, it describes the events of 16 years before when her twin sister lay dying in hospital in Oxford, and the connection that developed between her and the daughters of the woman who was dying in the next bed. It is a sad, moving and yet lovely story, all hinging on a chance meeting in the street.

Later, living in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, she wrote about starting a blog called grannyp (“Old writers may not die, but they do have to move on. Thank God for the internet”) but it doesn’t seem to go beyond 2010.

Info about the illustrator
The cover illustration on my copy is by Emma Chichester-Clark who is best known for her Blue kangaroo books (and incidentally she also went to boarding school)

Other books you might like
Valentine Joe is a time travel book about World War One.
The red suitcase by Jill Harris is another, but about World War Two.

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know anything at all about Penelope Farmer. It has been a delight to find out all this info about her, and this remains one of my favourite books.

And how many children’s books have inspired songs? This one inspired a song by The Cure, called Charlotte Sometimes and full of quotations.  This Smashwords blog article points to two other blog postings that talk about the copyright implications, the impact it had on her sales, how Penelope Farmer actually got to meet the Cure at one of their concerts, how she signed a copy of the Puffin edition for Robert Smith (who told her that his older brother read him the story at bedtime when he was about 12, and “it never got out of my head”) and how she enjoyed her own “brief moment of pop glory” when they played the song as an encore at the end of the concert.
You can read them here and here (scroll down to the entry for June 12).

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? If so, I hope you loved it as much as I do. Let me know what you think!