Thinking of buying a book as a gift? Here’s some suggestions

Sarah Horrigan
Photo by Sarah Horrigan via Morguefile

The older I get, the more my Christmas and birthday gift wish list shrinks down to one word- Books, not that I can recall a time when I wasn’t super excited to receive one. From the Christmas Days of my youth when I had to be prised away from the latest annuals or a yet to be read Rumer Godden / Roald Dahl / Blyton and later on, the copy of the ‘Women’s Room’ given to me by a friend’s mother, to my now fast approaching ‘On Golden Pond’ days where the books are a little more reflective of one half century of interests,  I could never feel disappointed by a gift of a book. Even the piles of books from publishers and authors keen for me to review them hasn’t spoiled my pleasure and I look forward to a time when I can cancel all obligations and simply read my way into old, old age, preferably in some stellar location-  a rocker on an Appalachian covered porch, a maccia covered hillside in Sardinia, by the fishing boats at Woodbridge’s Tide Mill or a Georgian garden square in Bloomsbury perhaps. Until then, I will visit these places vicariously through the writings of others. Here are some books, newly published, soon to be published and a few old favourites too- books that somebody you know will love to receive, lend to others or to treasure.

Please note that you will find no Amazon links on this site. All books can be ordered from local book shops and from Waterstones and other nationals too. Please support your local traders and a list of some great East Anglian book shops are at the bottom of this feature. 

Food writing & cookery books

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My own preference is for a bit of writing with the recipes, lyrical, well researched and evocative writing that makes me want to do more than just cook. I want to be transported to the history, places and people behind the recipes. However I accept that this is my own quirk and so have also picked out some cookbooks that are very good examples of clear recipe writing, that don’t always assume prior knowledge nor a hedge funders means when it comes to buying ingredients. First off is the super engaging campaigner Jack Monroe and her second book release of this year, ‘A Year in 120 Recipes’. With the same consideration given to budgetary constraints and the paying of close attention to seasonality and careful use of a good store cupboard, Jack shows us how to bake (Peanut Butter Bread is yummy) and cook delicious soups and sides: a ‘pesto called Lazarus’ makes great use of innervated bottom of the fridge ingredients. As we go through the year, Jack shares with us some of the tumultuous events that cemented her position as a cook, recipe writer and social activist. Oh, and she found love too.

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I have been obsessed with the writing and recipes of David Lebovitz for quite a few years now and often re-read his first cooking memoir ‘A Sweet Life in Paris’ with its mix of wise before its time ex pat advice, scintillating food and wry observance of the often baffling nature of la vie en Paris. He has (thankfully not a moment too soon) published a new tome, ‘My Paris Kitchen‘ with the same mix of memoir, experience, culinary know how and recipes readers of his website will recognise as his trademark. Beautiful photography of his apartment and the city reflects the ten years he has lived in the city and the many changes Paris has undergone: a city embracing the cuisine and ingredients of people from all over the world. Cassoulet, coq au vin, wheat berry salad with radicchio (very good), cookies made with duck fat and that classically chic little chocolate cake are among the stand out recipes for me. Practical know how is great too- weights AND measures. Oy vey.

Baking books with a different slant to them are a particular weakness of mine and Trine Hahnemann’s ‘Scandinavian Baking: Loving Baking at Home’ combines functionality (recipes that work and aren’t too esoteric in technique or ingredients) with the quirkiness and lightness of touch possessed by Scandinavian food. The rosehip roulade for me, is the standout recipe and many of them are hugely appropriate for winter (and Christmas) baking. Out now.

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‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’

Want to get your rap mad kid into cooking? Best suited for the younger cook, the ‘Rappers Delight: HipHop Cookbook’ contains thirty hiphop inspired recipes with sometimes (very) tenuous links to the music itself- think Wu-Tang Clam Chowder, Public Enemiso Soup, Run DM Sea Bass and Busta Key Lime Pie. No expletives and each recipe is accompanied by a bespoke piece of artwork created by one of 30 of the best upcoming illustrators.

The first cookbook from a popular London restaurant, ‘Duck & Waffle: Recipes and Stories’ features its eponymous dish, a confit duck leg sandwiched between fresh waffle and fried duck egg, drizzled with mustard maple syrup. One for lazy afternoons where you can take over the kitchen and use every pan in the cupboards. In complete contrast is are the Little Leon range of small cook books from ‘Fast Suppers’ to ‘One Pot Naturally Fast Recipes‘ with uncomplicated recipes, standard ingredients and a lower hardback cover price of around £5-7 making them a great stocking gift for students, less confident cooks and children.

Increasingly fashionable are cookbooks that focus upon a particular region and in the case of Italy this is particularly apropos considering it was not even founded as one nation until the 1860’s and still cannot be described as uniform in cuisine to this day. ‘Sharing Puglia: Delicious Simple Food From Undiscovered Italy’ by Luca Lorusso is a well designed example of a comprehensive regional cookbook packed with stunning landscape photography. Cook kingfish crudo with fresh fava beans, lemon, and Caciocavallo  or scampi with fresh chicory and pomegranate, pour some wine and dream.

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In Kathleen Flinn’s earlier memoir, ‘The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry’, she recounted the story of her departure from the corporate world to study at the world’s most famous cooking school- Le Cordon Bleu. In ‘Burnt Toast Makes you Sing Good’, Flinn tells the remarkable story of her large Michigan family and her Irish/Swedish roots, including her parents’ unlikely decision to pack up everything and go to California to help run an Italian restaurant, their abrupt move to a very basic Michigan farmhouse, and their risky decision to raise chickens with no prior experience. Memories of Family, fishing, foibles and food, accompanied by the recipes of the food mentioned makes this a great read for lover of food writing.

The Autumn sees the release of books by the big gastro-beasts that roam the earth –Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, The Hairy Bikers and Hugh FW (full name not required). Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty More’ firmly places vegetables under the spotlight and refreshingly refers from framing them in the context of fish and meat. Organised not by ingredient or meal type, but instead by cooking method- grilled, baked, simmered, cracked, braised or raw, the recipes (which remain ingredient heavy) number Alphonso mango and curried chickpea salad, roasted aubergine with a sweet black garlic sauce, seaweed, ginger and carrot salad and a variety of sweet honeyed cakes and tarts such as meringue roulade with rose petals and fresh raspberries. Sumptuous and clear in its layout, courtesy of well known designer Caz Hildebrand (of Nigella book fame), the recipes might not be swift or few in ingredients but they work and they look good. Jamie Oliver has abandoned his low cost meals laced with a soupcon of social concern; theme of his last book, to go all out in his latest tome ‘Jamie’s Comfort Food’ featuring carb and protein heavy meals that may leave you with a food baby alongside some pretty pleasurable satiation. NOT a book for dieters (or those watching the pennies), meals like katsu curry with its fried breaded coating, mighty moussaka, mushroom soup pasta bake which riffs off those post war American recipes using canned soup as an ingredient plus enough roasted cow to keep Dan from feeling desperate will please many of his fans.

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Got a coffee snob in the house? Then the ‘World Atlas of Coffee’ by James Hoffman might keep them from banging on about it for a few days. His profession as a champion barista and coffee roaster means his exploration of varieties, the influence of terroir, production and roasting methods down to actual brewing is extensive and informed. This is the first book to chart the coffee production of over 35 countries, encompassing knowledge never previously published outside the coffee industry. Another semi scholarly tome is ‘The Language of Food’ by Stanford University linguist and MacArthur Fellow Dan Jurafsky,  the book every person in the food business needs to read, thus hopefully releasing us from tedious menu’s full of boring descriptions like  ‘crispy’ and ‘juicy’. Jurafsky points out the subtle meanings hidden in filler words, homes in on the metaphors and storytelling tropes we rely on in restaurant reviews, and charts a micro universe of marketing language on the back of a bag of crisps. The fascinating journey through The Language of Food uncovers a global atlas of culinary influences. With Jurafsky’s insight, words like ketchup, macaron, and even salad become living fossils that contain the patterns of early global exploration that predate our modern world.

Gabrielle Hamilton, the famous chef proprietor of NYC restaurant ‘Prune’ is tiger to Anthony Bourdain’s pussy (cat). From the moment I read her first autobiographical book ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’, sent to me by a dear friend in the States, I got hooked on her writing and was determined to taste her food. I have yet to achieve the latter but with the publication of her first and eponymous cookbook ‘Prune’ I can make do at home until I pick up the phone, book the flights and make a reservation at the same time. Gabrielle’s book is as no nonsense as her cooking style: there no introduction nor headnotes, because they are already covered in her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, which covers the evolution of her culinary ethos and style. There are stylish and tasty tricks to make the ultimate grilled cheese, the methodology for a bowl of grape nuts cereal with maple syrup that comes complete with a vanilla ice cream cone upturned on top and her ‘Youth Hostel Breakfast’: an assortment of wursts, olives, crackers, an egg, and tubes of fish paste. If I told you that her signature, for me, is the purest of recipes for radishes with salt and pale creamy butter, then you’ll either get her or you won’t.

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One of the first (and best) food bloggers is Molly Wizenberg of ‘Orangette’ fame and I can claim to be an early adopter, having read her from the start and bought her first book ‘A Homemade Life‘ pretty much straight off the presses. Basically when Molly recommends something or someone I get onto it straight away meaning that the book I was sent recently, ‘A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus’ by Rene Erickson (which had already impressed me greatly), took on even greater significance when her latest blog post dropped into my inbox. It turns out that Molly is friends with Ms Erickson and like me, cannot rate her food, which is basically French married with the Pacific north west, highly enough. Listen to the ethos of Rene: “I’m not a classically trained chef – actually, I’m not trained at all – so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens. It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.” The cover art is glorious- paper art married with victoriana, all on a background of saxe blue making this a simply gorgeous cookery book to own as well as use.

I have often thought about a compendium of lemon recipes (I am a dweeb I know) and somebody has beaten me to it with this, the Lemon Compendium by Yasemen Kaner-White, packed with amazing and lesser known recipes. Recipes such as Latvian Celebration Cake are bookended by writings about all things lemony from health and beauty tips to historical accounts making this a lovely ‘refreshing’ book to brighten a dull and endless winter.

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My prediction for the next gastro-fashion is Hawaiian food. Diverse and kaleidoscopic with an amazing fusion of culinary influences that reflect the history of the islands, books on the subject are a bit thin on the ground in the UK. If you are prepared to do a bit of hunting though, Rachel Laudan’s book, ‘The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Extraordinary Culinary Heritage‘ is a fabulous introduction and guide to its history and food.  Part personal memoir, part historical narrative, part cookbook, the book kicks off with a series of essays that describe Laudan’s first experiences with a particular Local Food (the Creole term for the food), encounters that intrigue her and eventually lead to her tracing its origins and influence in Hawaii. Followed by recipes, over 150 of them and a glossary plus gorgeous photos, this is the book for those eager to acquaint themselves.

Children’s books

Children tend to lead mindbending lives, what with the imaginary friends, monsters under the bed and other manner of weird and wonderful imaginings and so we think Clive Gifford’s book ‘The Science of Seeing and Believing’ which has just been crowned winner of the Royal Society’s Young Peoples Book of 2014 is a perfect gift. And not only for kids: your average adult could always do with getting back in touch with all the wonders of the human brain. Packed with anecdotes about how the brain processes sensory information and a range of illusions, from Akiyoshi Kitaoka’s stunning motion illusions to Roger Newland Shepard’s L’egs-istential Quandary, this is a brilliant book.

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The latest Jacqueline Wilson book stars her most outspoken, fiery and unforgettable heroine yet: Opal Plumstead: schoolgirl, sweet factory worker and Suffragette, fiercely intelligent yet thwarted in her ambitions of university. A timely meeting with Mrs Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes via the factory owner, a meeting with a man she feels is her soulmate and the start of the First World War all conspire to influence the adventures of a brand new role model for boys and girls.

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Neil Gaiman’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’

It’s important for children’s books to reflect universal themes and emotions; it makes them relatable but they also need to inspire and transport through fantasy. Many an adult will recount a grim childhood redeemed by the escape they found in books. In time for Christmas with an early December release is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’, a retelling of The Brothers Grimm’ darkest and most enduring fairytale.  Breathtaking and haunting illustrations from Lorenzo Mattotti complete a book to read and treasure and a book that indeed does transport the reader. Ruby Redfort,  supercool secret agent, code-cracker and thirteen-year-old genius is the latest of Lauren Child’s creations for slightly older readers. In this, the fourth book of the series Ruby must pit her wits against a seemingly invisible foe. How do you set your sights on catching a light-fingered villain if you can’t even see him?

The Photicular process uses an innovative lenticular technology, sliding lenses, and original four-colour video imagery resulting in a book that is more movie in your hands. Ocean offers not only a refinement of inventor Dan Kainen’s Photicular technology, taking readers on a virtual deep sea dive but through a text by Carol Kaufmann it offers descriptions and information in the form of mini essays. Escape here is provided via fantastical explorations of a world most of us will never see, the science bit explained accessibly and in some detail.

Cozy Classics by Holman Wang are a new range of books for younger children that seek to reinterpret classical literature in easy to understand illustrations and keywords. Twelve stunning images of needle felted illustrations accompany twelve child friendly words. From Moby Dick to War and Peace, these little books will introduce the classics to a whole new generation of readers. Mick Inkpen has built up quite a backlist now and ‘The Blue Balloon’ remains one of our families most loved children’s book. This tired, old and soggy balloon becomes endowed with fantastic powers which are magically demonstrated via giant pull out and fold out pages as the balloon goes square, multi coloured and very very long. 

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Alongside these well known classics, there are some great debuts and books by authors in the earlier stages of their careers. ‘A Dog Day’ is the stylish pen and ink debut of author Emily Rand, perfectly depicting the frustration of having to wait for the grown ups via a friendly terrier. He just wants to go to the park with his friends to play ball, but his owner has other ideas. Young Manga lovers and fans of Graystripe will be very pleased to receive ‘The Warriors Manga Box set’ by Erin Hunter capturing in mythical intensity, the journey of Graystripe- the ThunderClan deputy, back home to the forest and his Clan after capture by Twolegs. A good bedtime story never dates and stories about children who won’t go to bed had particular appeal in our house. ‘Max and the Won’t Go To Bed Show’ by Mark Sperring is a bit more high octance than most- you have to perform it alongside the telling so perhaps not one for tired parents on a busy school and weekday night. A rollicking parody of a circus performance with Max (and you) taming wild animals and performing magic tricks, if timed right, will tire out the most energetic of children.

Finally, if you haven’t introduced your children to some fine fiction from <ahem> times past, then here’s my guide to some of my favourites. Rumer Godden’sThe Diddakoi is a powerful and still relevant account of the prejudice towards the traveller and Romany community and its effects upon all class systems within a small country town when a young girl, half Romany, comes to live there. Godden’s ‘Miss Happiness and Miss Flower’ similarly deals with the loneliness and dislocation felt by Nona, sent to England from India and the two little Japanese dolls that help her. Another of her books dealing with the longing for a home in a strange place is ‘The Dolls House’ about the little penny doll, Tottie. Eve Garnetts ‘The Family From One End Street’ is a lovable chapter book about a large family living in working class loving poverty, somewhat romanticised but nonetheless a good starting point for discussions about this topic. A complete contrast in surroundings although not lacking in family love either are the ‘Milly Molly Mandy’ series by Joyce Lankester Brisley set in the pastoral idyll of an English village. Joan Aitken was one of my favourite short story writers for children and ‘From a Necklace of Raindrops’ contains eight classic stories conjuring up a world filled with magic, where wishes can come true. Well worth re-acquainting yourselves with her back catalogue too.

Travel, non fiction and nature writing for adults

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The Little Toller publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE Bates, Adrian Bell, Richard Mabey, Joseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever. I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods‘ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Bluebell woods set in Kent explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside and In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?

If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’  – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.

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In her book ‘Wild’, Cheryl Strayed ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marcettofollows the popular trope of journey as metaphor for self discovery and the vehicle by which we can develop an enhanced intrapersonal relationship, and reinvigorated this category of travel writing in the process. In her new book ‘Walking Home: a Pilgrimage from Humbled to Healed’, Sonia Choquette marries the historical sense of pilgrimage with travel writing, reinterpreting what pilgrimage means for a spiritual as opposed to religious generation. Keen to regain her own spiritual footing after a series of personal life crises, Sonia sets out to walk the legendary Camino de Santiago, an 820-kilometer trek over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain in the footsteps of the many who went before her.

I bought ‘Cancer Vixen’ by Marisa Acocella Marchetto as soon as it came out, drawn to the quirky and distinctive style of this smart New York based graphic artist and writer and the intensity of her story-what happens when a shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life finds . . . a lump in her breast? We laugh, cry and get angry alongside Marisa as she faces up to a potentially deadly disease, finds love, loses a lump and shows her not everyone’s reaction is one of kindness. Soon to be made into a film, it’s time to get re-acquainted with the book.

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Smart, modern writing on London with a great design ethos is surprisingly hard to find but Penguin Modern Classics is soon to re-publish Iain Nairn’s  classic treatise, ‘London’, a record of what ‘moved him’ between Uxbridge and Dagenham and an idiosyncratic, poetic and intensely subjective meditation on a city and its buildings. Seeing the beauty where others see dirt, possessed of an unerring eye for character beyond the obvious and vivid in its writing, this is one for anybody living there and all who adore this great city. Part travel, part food writing ‘In Search of the Perfect Loaf’ by Samuel Fromartz ticks both boxes emphatically well in my opinion. From Paris, to Berlin, to Kansas, we follow Sam on his quest as he shares his love for bread and the ‘baking secrets’ he learned along the way over four years. Perfecting sourdough and whole grain rye, meeting and picking the brains of historians, millers, farmers, wheat geneticists, sourdough biochemists, and everyone in between, learning about the history of breadmaking, the science of fermentation, Fromartz meets the needs of the bread geek in me and educates along the way too.

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I am a sucker from travel writing set in the USA and one of my absolute favourites is by Martin Fletcher and several years old now. ‘Almost Heaven: Travels in Backwood America’ satisfies my craving for the ‘other’ America and the less glamorous (and less obvious) everyday encounters with people. Written after completing his assignment as The Times correspondent in Washington DC, Fletcher possesses a reporters eye for detail and an absolute instinct for the story. My favourite section? His visit to Angola state prison and the interview with the editor of the famous in-house newspaper ‘The Angolite’. In complete contrast, Frances Mayes of ‘A Year Under the Tuscan Sun’ decided to take time off from her bucolic Italian life and travel around Europe, casting her poets eye over the history, culture and landscape of Portugal, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France and North Africa among others. Her observations in ‘A Year in the World’ are informed, lyrical and full of her love of poetry and art, perfect for cold winter days, spent dreaming of warmer climes, by a fire. Buy a copy of the poems of Lorca and Neruda to read straight afterwards because she loves them and quotes them often.

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‘Charming Package’ by Norman Rockwell, one of the paintings explored in Deborah Solomon’s book.

Lovers of Americana in art will devour ‘American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell’ by Deborah Solomon in which Rockwell’s dedication through periods of self-doubt, depression and marital tumult is both explored and paid tribute to. “It’s a fine story, how this odd and fastidious young man worked his way up through a cartoonish phase to become the most beloved American artist of the 20th century, his very name a byword for sentimental Americana — Main Street, the village church, the ball field, the soda fountain, the barbershop, the freckle-faced Boy Scout, the garrulous grandpa, the blushing bride — an odd-duck artist yearning for normalcy and community” writes Deborah Solomon, “a small-town Arcadia of his own imagining.” And Solomon tells this fine story in her own fine way too.

Margaret Forster is not the first writer to explore the nature of houses, home and their history with relation to their own lived experiences but in ‘My Life in Houses’ we are shocked out of our contented enjoyment of her reminiscences by the sharp intrusion of reality (and I will not give the game away here save to say is it not something I could have predicted). Forster understands that the home is the bedrock of social and economic history and that a roof and four walls comprise a psychological framework to human existence. From her humble beginnings in a Carlisle local authority house which nonetheless is seen as aspirational by her parents and her own yearning to live in the private houses nearby with indoor toilets to her current Highgate home, Forster ends this book with an assertion that a house has an indefinable influence: it both reflects its inhabitants and affords them something in return. That indefinable sense of home is what we return to in our minds and hearts and exists independently of its walls.

Llareta from the Atacama Desert in Chile and over 3000 years of age
Llareta from the Atacama Desert in Chile and over 3000 years of age

The artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe for the best part of a decade to discover and photograph Very Old Things or to be more precise, living things over 2,000 years old. She has now collected the most breathtaking of these into a single volume of photographs and essays in The Oldest Living Things in the World. This is a powerful and exquisite piece of work that transcends a single definition, covering science, art, philosophy and spirituality over seven continents. It asks us about the meaning of life when such aged organisms face destruction at the hands of humankind and intersperses such weighty matters with well written accounts of her adventures as she explores the world. This is a coffee table book that will actually get read, will spook, enthrall and educate.

Fiction and short stories

Busy people (especially parents), commuters or those with shorter attention spans can all maintain their engagement with the written word via stories in short form and I have recently had the pleasure of reading some great anthologies, recently published and not so. Always keen to promote East Anglian writers and publishers, I discovered Salt Publishing and had a look at their list. The ‘Best British Short Stories’, edited by Nicholas Boyle aims to reprint the best short stories published in the previous calendar year by British writers, whether based in the UK or elsewhere (their words) and includes pieces by Elizabeth Baines, Johanna Walsh, Christopher Priest and Jay Griffiths. The introduction itself, in which Royle explains his editing process, what was left out and why, is a masterpiece in itself. Baines little vignette with its descriptions of black lapping sea, mud flats and the smells of Autumn is particularly apropos for readers like me, based in the watery counties of East Anglia.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove

From presidents reincarnated as horses to Japanese girls, drugged and producing silk from their bodies, the stories of Karen Russell weave the everyday emotions of folks into fantastical magical realism in her short story collection ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove‘ and in her debut, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”.  If you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then giver her a try. If you fancy reading Russell in long form, then go for ‘Swamplandia’, a tale of a Floridian alligator wrestling park owning family, left adrift after the mothers illness and defection of the heroines big brother to a rival park. Fantasy of a different kind abounds in Terry Pratchetts latest Discworld novel ‘Raising Steam’, still going strong after 30 years as Ankh-Morpork branches into the railway age. Packed with in jokes and references from the earlier novels, it is written with all the sly humour his fans have come to expect.

‘All Our Names’ by By Dinaw Mengestu brings together a Midwestern social worker and a bereft African immigrant and explores their relationship of shared dependency with truth, sadness and a keen, unsparing eye. Dinaw Mengestu continues to explore the violent uprooting and uneasy exile of his two previous novels, Children of the Revolution and How to Read the Air in this tale, riven with passion and an unshared narrative of the past. Isaac is from Africa and Helen is his social worker lover, although Isaac’s true name is never revealed to us, or her. The real Isaac is left behind in Uganda where 10 years of postcolonial rule are about to affirm the dictatorship of Idi Amin.

November 2014 brings us the latest novel from Stephen King who appears to be on a ‘revitalised’ roll (bad pun-sorry) with book releases coming thick and fast. His last book, ‘Mr Mercedes’ marked a departure from fantasy fiction and his own genre of horror into the wilds of crime fiction and was, as to be expected, readable with no great departure from the usual tropes- disillusioned and troubled detective, woman who (nearly) saves him, yet it was laced with his characteristic detailed characterisation and use of cultural iconography to enrich the stories sense of place. ‘Revival’ returns however to familiar ground- a novel about addiction, religion, music and what might exist on the other side of life- small boys, charismatic ministers, the passage of time and a pact between an addicted rock musician and an onstage showman who creates dazzling portraits with lightning. Another ‘big beast’ of the literary world, Haruki Murakami, publishes ‘ The Strange Library’ in early December, a story narrated by a young man who follows a strange old man into a subterranean reading room in the local library. The man has an appetite for human brains and with only the company of a sheep man and a girl who talks with her hands, how is he going to escape?

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Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be delighted to know that in ‘Lila’, her latest book,  we return to the town of Gilead in a story about a girl who lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder. Due out early October and talking of sequels, Rachel JoycesThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ takes up the story of the woman Harold Fry planned to walk the length of England to see before she died. I like eerie tales, perfect for those nights as they draw in and this, from Kate Mosse called ‘The Mistletoe Brideis named for the famous old folk tale that told of the bride who hid in a wooden chest to surprise her new husband and was never found, dying entombed as he hunted for her, evermore. As Mosse’s introduction states, some of the tales have been printed elsewhere previously, and at the end of each she provides an insight into their inspiration. She also tracks how these short tales show how she would later develop into the writer of books such as Labyrinth.

In Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ we meet Frank, a difficult character to base the first of a planned trilogy of fiction upon, for Frank is a bit of a loner and disrupter with fraught connections to the wider cast of family members that populate the story. This first part of that projected trilogy called ‘The Last Hundred Years’ follows the story of a farming family from Iowa-the Langdons- from the early twenties to the mid fifties with a chapter for each year. Covering vast events, the Depression and Second World War to the start of the atomic age, we see these through the prism of the novels shifting point of view and as readers, we are kept on our toes by a narrative device that makes it hard to know what is going to happen next, no matter what our pre-existing knowledge of the wider historical content may be. The facade of family life, what it reveals, conceals and distorts is beautifully set against American life.

To the lives now, of immigrants to the USA, pitching up in a housing complex in Delaware in Christina Henriquez’s ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’. Arturo Rivera was the owner of a construction company in Pátzcuaro, México. One day, as his beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, is helping him at a work site, she sustains an injury that casts doubt on whether she’ll ever be the same again. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better. For Mayor Toro, the first glimpse of Maribel is love at first sight and the beginning of a friendship between the two families. Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Central and Latin America, filled with hopes, dreams and sometimes, disappointment.

During the summer of 1929 four children come together and change the course of their lives forever in a novel by Doris Grumbach, ‘The Book of Knowledge’ which examines the ways that childhood experiences create transformative resonance that lasts throughout adulthood and beyond and in a lighter read altogether, we become reacquainted with ‘Emma’, the famous Austen busy body in this revisiting by Alexander McCall Smith.

Think about re-reading some of those famous eighties ‘sex and shopping’ novels, all of them pure trivial and enjoyable fun. Highly recommended is the uber-book of its age ‘Lace’ by Shirley Conran, a sumptuously elaborate ‘ages and stages novel’ set across continents featuring five women- four friends and the secret daughter of one of them. The scene with the goldfish is one that all us women who read it in the eighties will remember. Others of that time include pretty much the entire oeuvre of Judith Krantz- ‘Scruples‘ and its sequels plus her ‘Princess Daisy‘ and ‘I’ll Take Manhattan’;  The Watershed’ by Erin Pizzey and the many novels of Rona Jaffe but particularly ‘Class Reunion’, ‘After the Reunion’ and ‘The Best of Everything‘. ‘Decades’ by Ruth Harris and the ages and stages novels of Eric Segal’ -‘Doctors’ and ‘The Class’ are also worth reading too. All of these are effortless pleasure after the economic and time consuming vagaries of the festive season. Put on your pyjamas, a pair of woolly socks, sink into the sofa with some Christmas chocolates, a warm blanket and indulge yourself.

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Charlottes Web

And finally, to some beautiful books that transcend age groups. The Folio Society produces over four hundred titles, all special or limited edition commissions of classic books for all age groups. With introductions from leading literary figures such as Jeannette Winterson and Michael Morpugo and illustrated by award winning artists and designers, these books with exquisitely set type, protective slipcases, premium paper and bindings are destined to be read, re-read and handed down like the treasures they are. Our choice? Charlottes Web with illustrations by Garth Williams in the classic style of the original and Ballet Shoes, introduced by Jacqueline Wilson and illustrated by Inga Moore. For adultsthe stylish redesign of Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with an introduction by Jay McInerney and artwork by Canadian Karen Klassen will definitely appeal. The blue cat on the spine of this edition is adorable and if American history is your passion, then the ‘History of the Indians of the United States‘ by Angie Debo with the sepia tinted cover image and gold and navy blue embossing, bound in buckram makes this meaty read something to treasure. For another sort of American history coupled with travel writing, Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ is introduced by broadcaster James Naughtie and is bound on covers of cloth printed with a resplendent panorama of mid century New York City.

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Charlottes Web

Book shops in Norfolk

Holt Books, Holt

Crab Pot Books in Cley and Wells-Next-the-Sea

Jarrolds Books, Norwich

Ketts Books, Wymondham

Norfolk Children’s Books Centre, Aylsham

The Book Hive, Norwich

The Brazen Head Burnham Market

Book shops in Suffolk

Aldeburgh Book shop, Aldeburgh

Browsers, Woodbridge

Chapel Books, Saxmundham

Harris & Harris, Clare

Kestrel Bookshop, Sudbury

Landers, Long Melford

There are also branches of Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds (2), Southwold, Ipswich and Norwich.

Summer Reads – Our recommendations

Our holidays are in sight and with a deliberately enforced policy of no WiFi, we will make the time to read. Pure bliss. Here’s some books we’ve enjoyed in the past and a few that we’ll be taking with us. There’s something for most of you here and we’ll be adding to it as time (and reading) moves on.

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Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

A wonderful and heartbreaking novel set in post-World War I rural Mississippi. It deals with issues of racial tension, love and betrayal .  Having been unable to put it down the first time I read it, I simply re-read it once again.

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The Almond Picker By Simonetta Agnello Hornby

This novel is set in Sicily in 1963 and the author successfully evokes the mood of a small Sicilian town in the throes of a family crisis. It traces the history of one of the town’s most prominent families – unveiling all of their secrets and mysteries. The author is brilliant at describing all of the nuances of life in this town. You feel the heat, smell the air, crave the gossip and feel transported to Sicily. If you’ve been there you will appreciate the authenticity of the description, and if you haven’t you will want to go.

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The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

 The best journeys can be those you didn’t know you needed to take and this is one of those rare children’s novels that both delights the adult reader and returns them to a child’s perspective. Beloved since I first encountered it via my American primary school mistress aged eight, it wasn’t as popular in Britain as it was/is in the USA. Thankfully this parlous state of literary affairs has now been rectified and it has become much loved over here too.

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Ruby by Cynthia Bond

This is not just the tale of a young woman clawing her way to survival in a world that seems hellbent on destroying her. It is also a story evolved from the author’s personal history.  When she was a girl, Bond heard the stories of how her aunt, a young black woman, was believed to have been murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen in the 1930s for her relationship with a white man. The crime went unpunished. And Bond herself was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. Hence, Ruby is born of the pain of women as unwilling and unwitting victims. Scenes of raw violence and pain are mitigated by the sheer beauty of the prose, but not an easy read all the same.

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Pilgrimage to Dollywood by Helen Morales

How could we NOT want to take this as part balm and consolation for our lack of tickets to see Dolly do Glasto this summer of ’14.  Asides her colossally successful musical career, Dolly is also the only female star to have her own themed amusement park: Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Every year thousands of fans flock to Dollywood to celebrate the icon, and Helen Morales is one of those fans.

In Pilgrimage to Dollywood, Morales sets out to discover Parton’s Tennessee. Her travels begin at the top celebrity pilgrimage site of Elvis Presley’s Graceland and finally to Pigeon Forge, home of the “Dolly Homecoming Parade”. Morales’s adventure allows her to compare the imaginary Tennessee of Parton’s lyrics with the real Tennessee where the singer grew up, looking at essential connections between country music, the land, and a way of life. It’s also a personal pilgrimage for Morales. Accompanied by her partner, Tony, and their nine-year-old daughter, Athena (who respectively prefer Mozart and Miley Cyrus), Morales, a recent transplant from England, seeks to understand America and American values through the celebrity sites and attractions of Tennessee. This celebration of Dolly and Americana is for anyone with an old country soul who relies on music to help understand the world, and it is guaranteed to make a Dolly Parton fan of anyone who has not yet fallen for her music or charisma.

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My Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force

A good book for the bookshelf voyeurist whose first action upon going to a persons house is to nose through their book collection.. Find out what cool people like Patti Smith, Roseanne Cash, Alice Waters and Judd Apatow stock on their shelves, through interviews and Jane Mount’s book spine paintings.

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The book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

“We’re the unknown Americans,” says a character in Cristina Henríquez’s second novel, “the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them.”

That declaration bluntly explains the theme of “The Book of Unknown Americans,” as does the novel’s choral structure — made up of first-person reminiscences from an array of characters from Latin American countries including Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Paraguay, Nicaragua and Venezuela, all of whom talk to us directly about their reasons for coming to the United States.

Central to the book is the account of the lives of its two central characters: a beautiful Mexican teenager named Maribel Rivera and her admiring friend and neighbor, Mayor Toro. Maribel has learning difficulties as a result of an accident, the details of which slowly become apparent in much the same way as one learns about the back stories of new friends.

Homesickness, dislocution and displacement; a yearning to belong and a yearning to preserve that which makes them different characterises the immigrant experience, something that is enhanced by the stories being set in Delaware- a state that is not the first to come to mind when one thinks of a destination. Very clever. Reading this book on holiday at my brothers home in Germany, listening to his own account of his loneliness and linguistic alienation, watching how he is now assimilated to the point of forgetting some of his native English enhanced the reading, ramming home the brutal reality of being a stranger in a land that represents so much to them prior to their arrival whilst appearing confusingly familiar too.

 

 

 

Some great book selections from Harris & Harris Books, Clare.

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The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang

The title of one story, ‘Nettle Spinner’ is enough to transport the adult imagination let alone that of a child. This book is bursting with magic castles, enchanted forests, fairies, trolls (not the Internet kind) and magic aplenty. Some lesser known tales will keep the story reader interested. This book is definitely for older children, the lack of illustrations making it perfect for independent readers or a bedtime story read by an adult. Definitely one to be dipped in and out of and to keep for future generations. 

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Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

“An utterly believable world that is very much like ours but different” in which Lockwood & Co exists as an agency set up to tackle the very real problem of ghosts. Lucy, the narrator has recently to London in search of an exciting career and she certainly finds it when she joins this ramshackle ghost management agency! For older readers, this book delivers what Roald Dahl always knew children needed- a good scaring!

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The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse

“Something was approaching the burrow. Something deadly. Something that made Sylvan’s fur bristle with fear . . . ”

Tom Moorhouse is an ecologist and it shows in his accurate and mesmerising depictions of animals in this adventure. Sylvan and his brothers embark upon an epic journey after their water burrow hole is threatened. Beautiful illustrations make this a great ‘show and read’ book and the non Anthropomorphic treatment coupled with a non preachy ecological message makes this a wonderful choice for those nostalgic for Ratty and Mole.

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Gabriel’s Clock by Hilton Pashley

Jonathon is half-angel, half-demon, and the only one of his kind. But he has no clues as to his true identity, and now a rogue archdemon wants him for his own sinister purpose….For older readers of around 10+, this book covers love and loss, issues of good and bad and of finding your real place in a World that is not what you thought it to be. Exciting, fast paced and with enough meat on its bones to challenge avid readers.

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Cinderalla- illustrated by Sarah Dennis

Using the fresh and popular technique of paper cutting, Sarah Dennis has designed an exquisite version of the old favourite ‘Cinderella’ by The Brothers Grimm. As pleasing to adults as it will be to children, this is one to keep well out of the hands of toddlers for safekeeping until they can be careful. Definitely a book to buy as a special gift- for a christening or from a Godparent although this perennial story will never tire in the retelling.

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Picasso’s Trousers by Nicholas Allan

Picasso doesn’t want to conform. Picasso has his own ideas about what his art should look like. “‘You can’t paint faces from the front and the side at the same time’ they said. ‘No, no, no Picasso’. But Picasso said, ‘Yes’. 

Full of colourful pictures and a special surprise fold out, children will be both inspired by and identify with Picasso’s need to determine himself. This book has rave reviews down to its blend of art education, fabulous illustrations, simple repetitive rhymes and themes that appeal to children. Art is for all and Allan’s book breaks down any sense of loftiness and inaccessibility. This book is fun!

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Twinmaker by Sean Williams

Set in the near future, one beset by massive tidal surges because of global warming which has forced humanity to take great steps to reduce their impact and emissions, Twinmaker follows Clair Hill on her mission to save her best friend.

Readers will confront important themes – technology; the power it wields and whether it is in itself inherently bad or the way in which we choose to apply it. The ability to use technology to ‘improve oneself is another theme which has resonance in this age of photoshopping, plastic surgery and illusion. Young Adults are increasingly exposed to and immersed in a multimedia world of instant gratification and to a certain extent this novel taps into this with its vivid chases, gunfights and action packed scenes. Yes it does ask the reader to engage in a moral process, but it does this via stealth and is devoid of that preachiness much detested by children.

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The Taming Of The Tights (The Misadventures of Tallulah Casey) by Louise Rennison

Described by young reviewers as speaking in an authentic voice of a 10-15 year old (ish), Tallulah Casey is the madcap cousin of the author’s other popular heroine, Georgia. Tallulah Casey is putting all thoughts of wild boy Cain behind her. He is literally an animal in trousers….Not like nice boy Charlie (who she’s totally not thinking about either). The Tree Sisters are chasing those golden slippers of applause at performing arts college but Dr Lightowler seems hell-bent on spoiling everything for Tallulah.

And with all her mates loved up, can Tallulah resist the call of her wild boy?

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Great Explorers by Stewart Ross and Stephen Biesty

Another exquisitely designed book that doesn’t dumb down the epic nature of the great explorations it retells. Each journey of discovery, whether it be by sea, air, space or land is inspiring and is explained by detailed technical drawings, fold out cross sections, maps and panoramic storytelling. 

The imagination of a child knows no bounds and I would argue that this characteristic is retained by many great explorers. I would have loved to own a book like this when I was growing up although there is also a market for books that highlight the great discoveries of Females too and gives some background about why women weren’t so celebrated or encouraged to be explorers. 

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Asylum by Madeleine Roux

This photo novel, described as perfect for lovers of ‘Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children’ is thrilling, unsettling and creepy, packed as it is with photographs of real abandoned asylums. This new format for fiction is one I find exciting and definitely appeals to more visual readers.

For sixteen-year-old outcast Dan Crawford, the summer program at New Hampshire College Prep is a lifeline. Finally, a chance to make some friends before college. Even if that means staying in a dorm that used to be a old asylum. Soon Dan’s hanging out with Abby and Jordan, and summer is looking up. But then he learns that the asylum was not just any sanatorium – it was a last resort for the criminally insane. As Dan, Abby and Jordan explore the hidden recesses of their creepy summer home, they discover it’s no coincidence that the three of them ended up here. And that some secrets refuse to stay buried…

Perfect for young adults and advanced readers of ten plus.

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How They Met (and Other Stories) by David Leviathan

Love is a complicated, addictive, volatile, scary, wonderful thing. Many of the stories in this collection started out as gifts for the author’s friends. From the happy-ever-after to the unrequited, they explore the many aspects of the emotion that has at some time turned us all inside out and upside down.  A collection of stories about love, full of ‘Meet-Cutes’ and other whimsy. From coming out on a prom date to being fixed up by a 6 year old, these short stories are ideal YA material and will suit readers who like to dip in and out of a book.

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The Super Swooper Dinosaur by Martin Waddell and Leonie Lord (illustrator)

“But just what can a boy, a dog and a dinosaur play together?”

True friendship transcends physical differences in this tale of a dinosaur who swoops in and wants to play. Energetic, clear and lively illustrations reinforce the can do message. We have always loved the work of Martin Waddell and in Leonie Lord, he has a fresh and lively collaborator. 

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Z Is For Moose by Kelly L Bingham and Paul O Zelinsky (illustrator)

Zebra is absolutely certain he’ll be able to direct everyone to appear on the correct page, at the appropriate time, without any mishaps, unnecessary drama, or hurt feelings. It’s an ABC book, for goodness’ sake. How difficult can it be? Oh, dear. Zebra forgot about Moose. Any parents of toddlers and preschools will recognise that sense of frustration when things don’t go to plan….

A witty and madcap reinvention of the classic alphabet book full of suspense, zaniness and anticipation- something young children adore.

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The Library by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Smalls

Elizabeth Brown doesn’t like to play with dolls, and she doesn’t like to skate. What she does like to do is read books. Now that she’s grown up, her collection is so big all the shelves are collapsing. Her front door has disappeared entirely. What in the world will she do? The reclusive Elizabeth Brown surprises everyone with her splendid solution.

How do private libraries come to exist? This book is infused with a love of books themselves. A book to treasure indeed which should resonate with every book lover contemplating being pushed out of their own home by their growing book collection…..

Feeling the love for Harold and the Big Purple Crayon

 

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This book, beloved of myself from the moment I was given it aged four and much loved by my children, is relatively unknown in the UK, and undeservedly so. On a superficial level it is a lovely simple picture book with bold line-drawings that jump off the page, telling the reader about a sweet baby hero and the adventures he gets into. On the other hand, Harold And His Big Purple Crayon serves as metaphor for childhood and for growing up, dealing as it does with so many childhood challenges and fears. Harold has to manage himself with regard to the way night-time separates him from his parents; his subsequent travels away from the safety of his bed and the fact that he has to problem-solve without their assistance.

As the book opens, we see Harold has scribbled meaninglessly across the flyleaf and opening page but as the story starts and we read the first line of text, “ “One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight,” Harold’s crooked and meandering scribbles become a purposeful straight line from left to right, mirroring the English language. As the character explores what is imagination and what is reality, the process of artistic creation is laid bare. Harold is the embodiment of the art of drawing, something the artist Paul Klee describes as “taking a line for a walk.”

What does it mean to be real and how does something become real? For children, living lives of magical realism where the boundaries are blurred between reality and what feels like it, this is an ever shifting concept. Must we experience things for them to be ‘real’ or can they simply exist in our minds? Does their retelling in a story realise them? By interacting with them in a physical manner, Harold gives them a sense of universal actuality and through his understanding of what the drawn objects mean to him, they become imbued with a rationalists sense of reality.

Harold is followed by a moon that he himself had to draw because he awoke and noticed that it had mysteriously disappeared. His imagination, whilst unbounded, needs first to make tangible something both mystical and mysterious, and something of huge practical importance too: moonlight will help him navigate the darkness.

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The knife edge of hazards that parents must help their children negotiate is reflected in Harold’s falling into the ocean he draws and tumbling down the hill that he climbs. But good parenting builds resourcefulness and Harold draws himself a boat when he tumbles into the ocean. In this way we arrive at the idea of fate and external locus of control versus control of our destiny and an internal locus of control. Harold’s own actions lead to possible danger- dragons and water and hills to tumble down. He starts to learn that one faces the consequences of ones’ own actions and eliminating risk is not the answer; it is how we manage and react to it that is the more important.

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When Crickett Johnson submitted the first draft to the legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, her first reaction (as she later admitted in her own words) was luke-warm and unenthusiastic although she acknowledges that on the day it arrived, she was so “dead in the head that she’d probably pass up Tom Sawyer.” Later on, Nordstrom writes to him and aplogizes: “I think it is FINE, and the little changes you made are just perfect. Thanks for the part about the forest, and for all the other little touches.”  

Crockett Johnson went on to write several more Harold books under her capable hands and sold more than two million copies of the first ‘Harold’ book. It has never gone out of print.

Nordstrom, the director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, went on to edit many other classics, including The Carrot Seed, written by Johnson’s wife, Ruth Krauss.  Crockett Johnson illustrated his wife’s book and he drew that same large bald-headed boy in an earlier comic strip called Barnaby. In an NPR article, Crockett Johnson is described as saying that he drew people without hair because, `It’s so much easier. And besides, to me people with hair look funny.’ He too, was bald and Crockett’s  animal characters in Will Spring Be Early? Or Will Spring Be Late?, published in 1959 also share that naive and bald headed quality- his skunks, ground-hogs and bears lack any discernible fur.

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Maurice Sendak himself was a protogee of Crockett Johnson, and the style he adopted in “Where the Wild Things Are” was floridly different to that of Crockett Johnson. Nonetheless, Johnson and Ruth Krauss had a creative hand in the wild abandon of Sendak’s famous illustrated book.  Like Where the Wild Things Are, Johnson’s book acknowledges that the imagination of a child can carry him away from the safety of his home and his parents and after spending a safe amount of time out in the wilderness, the child desires to go home and is thus able to.