I'm a freelance writer and editor, but I also daylight (that's like moonlighting, but during the day) part time as a children's librarian. I love children's books so this is a pretty natural fit for me.
Right now in the library we are shadowing the Carnegie medal. I've been reading my way through the shortlisted books, and of those I highly recommend Trash by Andy Mulligan for a good fast-paced read and a page-turning adventure (with a poignant end note that 'this is a work of fiction, but there really is a dump site at Behala and there really are children who will crawl through trash forever). However the clear winner for me this year is A Monster Calls.
This is written by Patrick Ness, from an idea by Siobhan Dowd. Sadly, before Dowd could write the book, she died of breast cancer at the age of 47. Patrick Ness was asked to take on the project. He explains that he didn't try to write the book Siobhan would have written, but simply to write a book he thought she would have liked. From this, A Monster Calls, was born, telling the story of Conor, whose mother is seriously ill, with an illness that is never named, but which it's easy to conclude is cancer. I don't want to say too much about the book, but will share the blurb:
The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…
The monster in his back garden, though, this monster is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.
The book is labelled young adult fiction, but has been read by many of my friends now (via the power of nagging) and loved. I sent a copy to my mum too (who is a breast cancer survivor) and she called it 'the truest book I've ever read'. The illustrations by Jim Kay are menacing and dark. And if you don't cry at the end, you're probably a heartless monster too.
It got me thinking about other books that have made me cry. In real life, I laugh and cry easily, but it takes a lot for a book to make me cry (or laugh). It's an amazing power to be able to make somebody feel something, using just written words.
1) Michael Rosen's Sad Book. I first came across this when I was reviewing children's books, and thought it was going to be a typical Michael Rosen silly, happy-go-lucky book. The fact that it's done in Rosen's simple, accessible style and with Quentin Blake's recognisable illustrations makes it all the more poignant I think.
Some people like to use this book with young children to talk about sadness, but I would personally feel that the sadness tinges towards depression at times, and is a bit hard for younger children to comprehend. I can't get past the first page of this without feeling my eyes prickling. It says:
What makes me most sad is when I think
about my son, Eddie. He died. I loved him
very, very much but he died anyway.
I'm welling up just typing it. Michael Rosen really did lose his son, Eddie, at the age of 19. I grew up knowing Eddie, the cheeky, funny character in Michael Rosen's poetry books.
It has to be read to understood, but the simple text and the illustrations combine beautifully to build a picture of 'sad'. I also really like one of his coping mechanisms, where he says he likes to do one thing every day that he's really proud of, and when he goes to bed he thinks very hard about this one thing.
I'm being a terrible book reviewer here - 'I can't tell you anything about these books or it will spoil them!' I think perhaps it's pretty well known what this book is about, and certainly others have twigged a lot quicker when reading it than I did, but for me there was suddenly this sinking feeling in my stomach where I realised what was going on, and how it was going to inevitably unfold. I couldn't have predicted the ending though, which I found thoroughly distressing.
Suffice to say that when I read this book a few years ago, my husband came bursting into the bathroom to find out what could possibly have happened to me since I got in the bath to make me start crying uncontrollably. I haven't watched the film of this because, to be honest, I just can't. It's definitely worth reading though.
3) Maus by Art Spiegelman. This is a graphic novel and that means that I've lost a good 95% of my audience just by saying that. Don't switch off, this is important. I don't read graphic novels either, but this was recommended to me by someone I really respect and I'm glad I gave it a go. It's billed as a Holocaust memoir with mice as the Jews and cats as the Nazis, but that's not it at all. Art Spiegelman's illustration is so simple and the story so real, told in his father's words, through painstaking tape-recordings, that you are taken on a hellish journey with them.
Time flits between the story told and the present, with Art and his father dealing with their relationship and the fallout from the past, which gives the story a sense of reality, and also somehow enhances the horror because it doesn't ever get lost as just a story. I felt sick when I read this, wanted to stop reading the book and hide it away but it's an important book and has to be read. I can't write enough to do this book justice - it really is a 'must read', and you should buy 'The complete Maus' so you can read it all in one go. It's also made me open up to reading graphic novels and I've found a few that I enjoy.