Thursday 7 March 2013

World Book Day - The Truth is a Lemon Meringue!

It's March 7th 2013 and it's World Book Day! Let's hear it for a "big, loud, happy celebration of reading!"

Childrens' literature is enjoying something of a boom at the moment, with festivals promoting and supporting childrens' literacy becoming ever more popular.  At the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival later this month, authors such as The Gruffalo’s Julia Donaldson, Shirley Hughes, Anthony Horowitz and Philip Pullman will be giving sell out talks about their books and other literary topics. The Hay Festival are currently working on their Hay Fever programme for children and families following its enormous success last year, and amongst an eclectic list of participants, Andy Stanton, author of the ‘Mr. Gum’ books will be hosting a 'Laughathon' at this year's Bath Festival of Children's Literature in September.  Children are literally queueing up to meet and listen to the creators of their favourite characters, such is the pulling power of a good book.

I fully believe in this power, and the magic of the written word is something that can stay with a child long into adulthood - I know it has with me. Books are such a wonderful way to discover new worlds, explore new feelings, and in this day and age, a very necessary antidote to computers and other technology. So I'm happy to say that storytime in our house has become a brave new world this past year: the familiar shores where the Wild Things are have receded into the distance, the Gruffalo’s forest is far, far away and we are no longer going on regular bear hunts. Now the picture books remain closed on the shelf and bedtime for my boys has become a nightly voyage of discovery into the world of the chapter book. Roald Dahl, the master, was our initial guide into these uncharted waters but we have branched out, and whilst Harry Potter is the current No 1 draw (with Lemony Snicket and Artemis Fowl in hot pursuit), we have been sucked into the mad, bad world of Mr Gum and the life of one small Viking trying to train his dragon, and it's been a whole lot of fun.

The very first drawing of Hiccup by Cressida Cowell. Photo: Martin Chilton

Cressida Cowell’s ‘How to train your dragon’ series (the tenth book ‘How to seize a Dragon’s Jewel’ has recently been published) are the memoirs of the greatest Viking Hero that ever lived – Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. However, in the beginning he’s just a very ordinary boy (albeit one of the few who can speak Dragonese), finding it hard to be a Hero. With his dragon Toothless and his best friend Fishlegs, he has to deal with his demanding dad Stoick the Vast, and endure the taunts of his cousin Snotface Snotlaut and his gang whilst battling all manner of monsters from a Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus to a Doomfang with Vorpentitis. The language Cowell uses is full of vivid descriptions (“he was as red as a tomato with the flu”) and the storylines are by turns hilarious and gripping – every chapter ends on a cliffhanger.  However, perhaps Cowell’s masterstroke is that she totally gets inside the head of a ten year old boy and thus children can really respond to and identify with him as he navigates his way through life.  We love Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third!

Mr Gum is a completely different kettle of fish – instead of a hero Andy Stanton has created a villain who is probably the most completely useless baddy in literature. He’s very, very stupid and smelly and this cleverly means that he’s not at all scary, so children can enjoy his villainy rather than be afraid of him.  Billed as ‘mad, bad and dangerously funny’, the books take us to Lamonic Bibber, where Mr. Gum hates ‘children, animals, fun and corn on the cob’ and “Shabba me whiskers” is his favourite phrase.  In ‘You’re a Bad Man Mr. Gum’, the first book in the series (there are nine altogether), Mr. Gum attempts to poison Jake, a whopper of a dog who keeps digging up his garden, and it takes the story’s heroine Polly (her real name is ridiculously long so I won’t re-print it here….) and her friend Friday O’Leary to save the day. The characters and storyline are completely bonkers, but delightfully so and children love the zany, inventive nature of the books. There are lots of made up words and eccentric phrases, the best of which has to be Friday O’Leary’s ‘the Truth is a Lemon Meringue’ which he shouts out randomly and has quickly become a family favourite. You really do have to let yourself be carried away by Andy Stanton’s imagination, but you will have a whole lot of fun with your children in the process.

Both of these series of books are excellent as chapter books to be read aloud but are very accessible for children - both boys and girls - embarking on reading alone and the illustrations are wonderful. The audio books are also to be highly recommended – David Tennant reads the ‘How to Train your Dragon’ series - see video below, and Kate Winslet has thrown caution to the wind with excellent comic timing with the first four of the ‘Mr. Gum’ books.

Serendipitously, I am meeting with my book club girls tonight to talk about this month's book: 'The Snow Child' by Eowyn Ivey and we shall raise our glasses and celebrate reading in all its many forms. If you have five minutes - pick up a book, you never know where it will take you....

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