April Superlatives

April was a good month in numbers (seventeen), a decent month in quality, a month that I have decided I should not attempt to repeat. I got a lot of proofs from the bookshop, probably too many: there were piles on my desk at work, piles on the desk at home, and a kind of grit-my-teeth determination to get through them all before May. The vast majority of them were very good, but that still seems, in retrospect, like an awfully joyless way to read. It also meant that I burnt out on reviewing less than halfway through the month. In May I’ll be reining it in. Which is handy, since I’ll have friends and family visiting, some singing to do, and zero free time.

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most essential: If you like books or use the Internet—and, since you just read that on a website devoted to books, this means you—you need to read The Idealist, by Justin Peters. In part it’s an intellectual biography of data freedom activist Aaron Swartz, in part a tour of historic attitudes to copyright, freedom of information, and open access to literature and other works of culture. If you’re a writer, a reader, a citizen, this is fundamental, and it taps into every other contemporary political issue that there is. (review)

best exposition of little-known history: The fact that there are true things we don’t know about because they’re too weird or peripheral to make it into school history curricula is a source of neverending fascination for me, both as a reader and as a writer. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots follows a young, idealistic American woman who moves to the USSR in the 1930s, and tracks the life she lives there, all but abandoned by the US government, as purges start to get worse. It’s a compelling, if somewhat overlong, exploration of choice, dogma, and what it means to be free. (review)

best punch to the stomach: Almost literally; One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel, is under two hundred pages and focuses on the interactions between an abusive father and his two adolescent sons. Magariel compassionately illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of “being a man” in a world that prioritises violence and loyalty above all else. (review)

best application of essential thoughts: Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, is dedicated in part to Aaron Swartz. Set eighty-odd years in the future, it speculates about a wholesale rejection of late-stage capitalism enabled by 3-D printers, widespread tech smarts, a communal mindset, and the fact that the 1% has become the .001%. When a walkaway group discovers a technology for cheating death, all hell breaks loose. Doctorow believes we’ll create the world that we imagine, and he wants us to imagine a cooperative one. It made me feel very hopeful. (review)

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sheerest fun: Volume 2 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s barnstorming space opera graphic novel. In this one, we get more of The Will and Lying Cat—two of my absolute faves—beautifully rendered interactions between Alana and her father-in-law, a planet that hatches, and (finally) the appearance of Gwendolyn. It’s slick, funny, and superb.

most fuck-the-patriarchy: Maria Turtschaninoff’s YA fantasy novel Naondel, the follow-up to last year’s Maresi. Men in general don’t come off well—they’re all evil, weak-willed, arrogant, or all of the above—which does its young readers a disservice; Maresi took care to state that men aren’t inherently bad, a more nuanced approach that showed more respect for an adolescent’s intellect. Still, Naondel is full both of badass women and of women who’ve been badly hurt but not broken. That’s a great big middle finger to oppressive tyrants everywhere. (review)

most self-aware memoir: Admissions, English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s second book. Marsh is completely honest about his personal faults, which largely neutralises them; he is forthright about the problems that beset the NHS, and clearly fiercely proud of his colleagues, and of the institution as it was originally conceived. He writes a lot in this second volume about aging and death, too, without either sentimentality or cynicism. His voice is wry and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

most diffuse: Sympathy, a debut novel by Olivia Sudjic, published by ONE Pushkin. I liked it well enough, but I finished it unsure of whether Sudjic had actually done anything particularly interesting with her major theme—the ease with which one can stalk and create a false sense of intimacy, using the tools of social media—or whether she had simply used it to tell a fairly conservative story of the need for origins and belonging.

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most unexpected pleasure: That derived from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Going in with no expectations was probably wise; it’s a surprisingly wistful novel, full of marital affection that is no less honest for being presented side-by-side with selfishness and existential terror.

best retelling: Colm Toibin’s reclamation of the Clytemnestra/Agamemnon/Orestes story from ancient Greece, House of Names. Toibin nails the bare-bones, primeval nature of the story and simultaneously brings us into the heads of absolutely single-minded characters. My only query is whether he gives quite enough weight to religious belief: the younger characters are convinced the gods are not there, but Agamemnon must have thought they were, and we don’t get enough of that (or a good reason to decide that he’s merely a nihilistic child-murdering monster.)

best murder: Two, actually—the deaths in Sarah Schmidt’s historical novel about Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done. And by “best” I mean “most horribly described without being gratuitously gory” and “motives for which explored with the greatest delicacy and surprising artistry”. Turns out Schmidt can really, really write, and she cleverly resists the temptation to pinpoint the nature of Lizzie’s mental health problems, making for a gloriously uneasy reading experience.

most wasted opportunity: Queer City, subtitled “a history of gay London from the Romans to the present”, Peter Ackroyd’s latest. To paraphrase what I said in an earlier discussion, Ackroyd fails on two counts: a) to provide much in the way of sources (there’s a bibliography in the back, but he usually just recounts an anecdote without saying where or who it comes from, and without appearing to analyse the source), and b) to create anything like a narrative or a sense of development around the history of gay London. It’s all just event, event, event—court case, scandal, ballad, gossip, hanging—with no framing of these events in a wider context, no attempt more than cursory to explore social and political currents that might suggest why things changed when. And although the book purports to be about the city, it doesn’t really convey a sense of why or how gay culture flourished specifically in London.

best insults: To be found in The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to The Glorious Heresies, which won her the Baileys Prize last year. In this volume, we follow one of the characters we met previously, Ryan Cusack. A few years down the line, he’s twenty and dealing drugs, and his girlfriend Karine, who means everything to him, is starting to lose patience. McInerney ties in many of the characters we met in Heresies, but this time the atmosphere is darker: there are more beatings, a mock-execution. There’s still humour, though, and the insults are fabulous (“his head is just something that keeps his ears apart” being one of my favourites). I’m just not sure it rises to the heights of Heresies, but I can’t put my finger on why.

The Fact of a Body

hands-down favourite: I liked a lot of the books I read in April, but none of them are going to stay with me like The Fact of a Body. Written by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a qualified lawyer with an MFA, it’s part true crime narrated in flawless novelistic prose, part attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Marzano-Lesnevich’s own abusive past. She does this by facing their echoes in the case of Ricky Langley, who admitted to killing a little boy called Jeremy Guillory in 1993. It’s a stunning piece of work: never sensationalistic, never sentimental, always sharply intelligent about the law and human nature, and yet full of understanding. I absolutely adored it. I want it to be huge.

most unabashed comfort reading: Turns out these days, when I need to recharge my brain, I go for spies and murder. (This is why I think I’m getting old. Isn’t this what old people do? Curl up with a cosy mystery and a crossword? At least I don’t do crosswords.) Fortunately neither of these were especially cosy: not Mick Herron’s Dead Lions, the second in the Slough House books, nor Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of her Dublin Murder Squad books, this one set in a girl’s school. Dead Lions isn’t quite as good as Slow Horses: the wisecracking humour starts to wear thin, and the plot is, frankly, farcical and unnecessary (no one cares about the Cold War anymore, and trying to revive it – especially after Herron put his finger on the pulse in terms of real national security trends in his first book – seems like a misguided attempt to cash in on Le Carre comparisons.) But The Secret Place is, I think, one of French’s best books, because it is so explicit about the things that interest her as an author: friendship as an almost mystical force, and what happens when that force is subjected to outside influences, what happens when loving people isn’t enough. Reading it almost felt like relief: she’s a writer I trust implicitly.

most unexpected surprise: Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s new novel, which I’ll be reviewing very soon. It starts with the disappearance of a young girl in a Peak District village, and promptly fails to fulfill every one of our expectations about stories that start with the disappearance of a young girl. It’s also the best evocation I have ever read of modern English village life.

up next: I’m currently reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, with almost equal measures of enjoyment and mild confusion, as Miéville’s fiction tends to make me feel. For the rest of the month, I’ve got some fantastic proofs, including Tench by Inge Schilperoord, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, and The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith.

Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.

 

The Jhalak Prize, pt. 2: Orangeboy and Black And British

9781444927207Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

Marlon can’t believe his luck: he’s a sixteen-year-old Star Trek nerd living in east London, and he’s at a fairground—on a date!—with the gorgeous and desirable Sonya, the coolest girl at school. He’s desperate to impress her, so when she asks him to hold onto her stash of pills while they go on one of the rides, he’s happy to oblige. By the time the haunted house ride ends, Sonya is slumped in the seat next to Marlon, dead. Which makes the police very interested in Marlon. Which is not good, since Marlon’s big brother Andre used to be one of the most notorious drug dealers and gang members round their way—though things have changed since Andre had his car accident and ended up with brain damage. And once the police finish up with Marlon, he starts to get weird calls on his mobile: “Tell Mr. Orange I’m coming.”

From this, Patrice Lawrence weaves an utterly gripping story about being young and scared, about making decisions that you think will protect you but ultimately only drive you further into danger: we understand, even as we mentally shriek Go to the police! at Marlon, why he doesn’t feel that he can. Lawrence invests some of these scenes with menace so convincing that you feel as though you’re reading an adult thriller, not a YA one: there’s a particularly eerie scene in the crowded Westfield mall at Stratford, and when Marlon is attacked by a group of boys from south London, the descriptions of the beating are truly scary. If you have ever wondered what victims of mugging or robbery mean when they mention a sense of violation, reading Orangeboy will give you an idea.

What I particularly like about Orangeboy is how neatly Lawrence sidesteps stereotypes. Marlon’s dad isn’t around, but that’s because he died of cancer. Marlon’s mum is a librarian in Willesden. His best friend is a sassy girl named Tish (short for Titian), whose mother—also apparently a single mum—attends a monthly book club. You can’t dismiss them as “disadvantaged”; they might not have a ton of money, but they’re smart and cultured. It’s easy for any kid, Lawrence is saying, to get off the straight and narrow. You can’t just pin it on skin colour or poverty. There’s always more to the story.

Marlon’s story has a non-disastrous ending, but it’s proof of Lawrence’s skill as a writer that I seriously wondered at several points whether it was all going to finish in tragedy. It’s the best possible kind of book to give a thirteen-or fourteen-year-old: completely non-patronising, and gripping from start to finish. If it represents current YA writing as a whole, maybe I should read more.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f596731f6-ac19-11e6-9d1d-8992545bee51Black and British: a Forgotten History, by David Olusoga

Last year we went to an exhibit at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, a museum I would unreservedly recommend to all of you. We learned about black Georgians like Bill Richardson—a former plantation slave from Virginia who moved to London, became a national boxing champion, and eventually opened his own gym in Leicester Square, where he trained other pugilists. There was a cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson, entitled “Marriage a La Mode”, featuring several women enthusiastically pursuing a terrified-looking, bandy-legged bachelor; one of these wealthy middle-class ladies is a black woman. That exhibition raised so many questions for me: if black Britons existed before the voyage of the Empire Windrush, who were the first ones? How did they live here? Where did they come from? David Olusoga’s book, published alongside a BBC television series, attempts to answer those questions.

It is fascinating. Did you know, for instance, that there were African Roman legions stationed in York? That an ancient skeleton discovered near Beachy Head belongs to a woman from sub-Saharan Africa, who was buried with grave goods so elaborate and expensive that she was clearly a woman of some means? Did you know that there was a black trumpeter at the court of Henry VIII named John Blanke, that he married a white English woman and had mixed-race children? That racial prejudice of the kind we associate with American history was not echoed in England? (Intermarriage and mixed-race families were pretty much the norm for black Britons up until the introduction of nineteenth-century imperialism; many black Stuart and Georgian men in the British Isles married white women.) Olusoga’s research is deep and thorough, and it is both enlightening and, frankly, scary to read about how relatively quick and recent the turn towards racial prejudice was. It is not an ancient prerogative of Englishmen; it is connected first with plantation slavery in the Caribbean, but there were many court cases brought in London about the legality of planters bringing their “house slaves” back to the UK when they retired. It was the Scramble for Africa—starting only in the 1880s—that made racial prejudice in the UK a national phenomenon.

My only complaint, again, is that the manuscript doesn’t appear to have seen a copy-editor. There are lots of sentence fragments, a couple of verbs that don’t match their subjects; this is a completely natural byproduct of writing a draft, but then someone has to go back and smooth it over, make sure it all lines up. My only guess is that this process was telescoped so that the book’s release would coincide with the television programme, but again, it’s a shame. It is, however, much less intrusive than in Irenosen Okojie’s book previously mentioned (and there are no typos!) And it is not enough of a problem to stop me from heartily recommending this book: both accessible and crammed with information, it is a masterpiece.

This is the inaugural year of the Jhalak Prize, for the best book written by a BAME author in the UK. Both of these books were longlisted; Black and British has made the shortlist.

Orangeboy was published by Hodder on 2 June 2016. Black and British was published by Pan Macmillan on 3 November 2016.

Reviews Elsewhere: Maresi at Shiny New Books

maresi

The new edition of Shiny New Books is out today! Please go check it out; it’s a review collective that covers fiction, nonfiction, reprints, and general book chat (news, author Q&As, etc.)

I reviewed Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff for them. Here’s the first paragraph of what I wrote:

Maresi is thirteen or so. She lives in a fantastical realm on an island called Menos, under the protection of the Sisters of the Red Abbey. Men aren’t allowed on the island, although the sisters trade with fishermen. A girl called Jai arrives at the abbey fleeing the murderous violence of her father. She’s slow to trust, but Maresi takes charge of her and slowly Jai begins to open up about the death of her beloved sister and about the threat she still faces from her father’s unstoppable dedication to ‘honour’. It’s not long before sails show up on the horizon, and the Red Abbey is forced to defend itself against cruelty, hatred, and—crucially—the patriarchy.

You can read the rest here.

Top Ten Books to Revisit From Childhood

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten books from my childhood that I’d like to revisit.

1. The Horse and His Boy, by CS Lewis. The same goes for all the Chronicles of Narnia except for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which gets enough attention. The Horse and His Boy is the stand-out of the series because it’s set not in Narnia but in a neighbouring country, Calormen. Shasta’s flight from his adoptive father with the talking horse Bree is adventurous and exotic–one might say “exoticizing”, in fact, because Lewis has been frequently accused of anti-Muslim sentiment in this book. Which is why it would be particularly interesting to read again, now, with an adult awareness.

2. The Alanna and Daine books, by Tamora Pierce. I’ve talked about these before, and I’ll talk about them again. They’re the best books I can think of to give to the little girl in your life, whether she be angry, shy, or somewhere in between. The stories of Alanna, who at eleven disguises herself as a boy to learn the skills of knighthood at the palace of the King of Tortall, and of Daine, who is half-mortal and can speak to and through animals, are not only cracking fantasy; they’re also political thrillers, wonder tales, and accounts of friendship and loyalty. They’re beyond great.

3. A Murder For Her Majesty, by Beth Hilgartner. I barely remember any of this, but what vividly stayed with me was the idea of a girl (disguising herself as a boy, again–there’s some thematic coherence here) becoming a chorister at York Minster in the late sixteenth century. Alice, a witness to her father’s murder and afraid that his killers were agents of the Queen, becomes Pup, one of the minster’s choirboys. This, plus seeing a Charlotte Church concert on PBS at a young age (don’t mock; my tastes matured), was what set me on the path to choral singing.

4. Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge. Goudge is the kind of author you give to children who are already hooked on the mid-century Enid Blyton “jolly good” aesthetic. If your kids are very keen on their Xboxes, they won’t like or understand anything she wrote. But if they like the idea of running away from a mean grandmother to find ultimate acceptance with an eccentric uncle, his one-legged gardener, and the unraveling of a very bucolic English mystery, then they’ll love her. I was in the latter camp.

5. The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Another one that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, this is the story of six urban children whose obsession with Ancient Egypt leads them to play a game where they imagine themselves to be Egyptians; eventually the game seems to be bleeding over into reality. We did Ancient Egypt for practically our entire second grade year at school, but I must have thought the book was too spooky because I’m not sure I ever finished it. I’d love to go back and read it again.

6. Feeling Sorry for Celia, by Jaclyn Moriarty. This probably qualifies more as a YA book than a children’s book. Set in Australia, it’s about Elizabeth, a high schooler whose only friend, Celia, begins to drift away from her. It deals with some impressive issues–emotional manipulation, mental health, self-hatred and self-doubt–without ever losing its light touch. I particularly love how Elizabeth’s own insecurities about how other people see her appear in the forms of letters from institutions such as the Association of Teenagers.

7. Glinda of Oz, by L Frank Baum. For some utterly bizarre reason, I read and reread this over the course of the fourth grade. I haven’t the slightest idea why, other than that it was weirdly thrilling: there was an underwater city enclosed by a giant bubble, an evil queen whose name sounded like a hunting cry, a super bright pink cover, and some evocative line drawings by way of illustration. It would be illuminating to go back and read it again, if only to try and work out why it obsessed me so.

Absolutely matchless early noughties cover design, too.

8. Fearless, by Francine Pascal. “A girl born without the fear gene”–childhood wish fulfilment, check. There are about seventeen thousand of these books and they constituted my introduction to young adult literature. Kickboxing! Sex! Cigarettes! New York City! The very act of reading them was an orgy of rebelliousness. How I would love to go back and do it all again.

9. The Cuckoo Tree, by Joan Aiken. And all of the other books that feature the incomparable Dido Twite, but this is probably the best. Set in an alternative England where James III is on the throne and the “Hanoverian faction” plots to replace him, all of the books are masterpieces, but I particularly loved The Cuckoo Tree because its opening scene is in a carriage traversing the South Downs, where my grandparents live. It’s sort of like Jamaica Inn for kids. Phenomenal.

10. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. The more I think about our assigned reading at primary level, the more I appreciate the way we were stretched by our nerd-school’s ethos. I would never, off the top of my head, consider recommending this book to a nine-year-old. And yet it was one of our choices for summer reading when I was nine, and I read it, and loved it. It’s heavy. There’s poverty in the New York Irish community, a fading marriage, parents who play favorites, and a really horrifying attempted rape scene. (At nine, perhaps fortunately, I didn’t recognize this for what it was, although it still thoroughly creeped me out.) But Francie, our heroine, and her mother Katie, as well as her father Johnny and brother Neeley, always shine through as real characters, who feel and suffer and work hard to survive. It’s just a wonderful book. I’m sure I still have a copy at home in Virginia…