Friday, 28 March 2014

We've reached the terrible twos!

Recently, the We Sat Down blog passed its second year anniversary. We were quiet about it online but have been very reflective about it offline. Much like toddling children and their parents, Little M and I are at a crossroads (or a more complex) junction with We Sat Down.

Many of you will know that this blog is a personal reading journey for us. The original aim was to find content appropriate fiction for Little M and to have fun with it. She had outgrown reading suggestions from my childhood and (for various reasons) librarians and booksellers weren't filling that gap. And somehow, I thought jumping from 'Harry Potter' or 'The Famous Five' to The Testament of Jessie Lamb, or The End of Mr Y, was a jump too far. So we went looking.

We Sat Down took us in directions we never would have anticipated nor dreamed. It has been fantastic. We've found a whole new world in children's (and teen/young adult) literature that would mostly have passed us by. We've had long, complicated and exciting chats about so many things (including age and content guidance on books, which for us were helpful, but we appreciate that it can cause obstacles for others). We've met authors, publishers, other readers; we've interviewed people we never thought we'd even meet; we've been invited to award ceremonies, publishing parties and laureate announcements; M has judged and Little M has reported; we've set up a real world book club which Little M organises now; and we've shadowed the Carnegie medal. Each and every one of those things has been a highlight and we'd like to thank everyone - especially the publishers and authors who have made this happen.

But, we're finding that we don't have time to do as much of this anymore. Because of this, Little M has decided not to accept further review copies. I am accepting some (on a very limited basis so, publishers, please contact us before sending anything) but I'm putting much of my spare time into my own writing (newly turfed) and other publishing related projects (all of which have been sparked by the enthusiastic and inspiring children's publishing industry into which we've been welcomed).

So, expect to see some changes from us. But, this is not a goodbye nor a hiatus. It's another book related journey. And once again, we're really not too sure yet where it's going! As Katherine Rundell's Rooftoppers suggests, never ignore a possible. We're following our possibles.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

William Sutcliffe chat

We sat down for a chat...with William Sutcliffe

On the one hand, The Wall is an action-packed coming-of-age teenage adventure and on the otherhand it is possibly the most resolutely political of all the novels on this year's Carnegie shortlist. A modern fable, it tells an important and thought-provoking tale with interest and with grace. Its author, William Sutcliffe, tells us about the background to The Wall.

WSD: The Wall offers a very honest and painful consideration of what 'doing the right thing' means. What inspired you to write this modern fable?

Will Sutcliffe: The Wall in the West Bank has troubled me for a long time, and for years I have been searching for a way to write about it. Then it struck me that one of the common tropes of children’s literature is the character who escapes from his or her mundane, ordinary world through some kind of portal into a parallel, fantastical universe. I began to think that religious fundamentalists, such as the religious nationalist settlers in the West Bank, raise their children with utterly fantastical beliefs. In telling the story of a settler child who crosses from one side of the wall to the other, I realised that I could turn this idea upside down, with a narrative about a child raised in a world of fantasy who discovers a portal to reality.

The goal from the start was to write a book, like Animal Farm, that would work for younger readers as a metaphorical narrative set in a fictional universe, but for adult readers as political fiction about a real situation. The other thing I hope that it has in common with the Orwell novel is that even if you read it without any concept of the real place that has inspired the story, it remains a moral narrative about how your sense of right and wrong can come under extreme pressure when you find yourself in an unjust society.
(WSD: Yes, I think it easily achieves both of these ambitions)

WSD: Could you say a little about your research on/in the West Bank for this novel (and perhaps why you've selected Playgrounds for Palestine to receive 15% of your royalties)?

William Sutcliffe: I took two separate research trips. The first one was as part of the Palestine Literary Festival, visiting all the main Palestinian towns in the West Bank and participating in events, talks and seminars with local writers. I later took a second trip, in which I stayed with three settler families in different settlements in the West Bank. The two itineraries overlapped but never intersected due to tunnels and segregated roads. The geography of the West Bank is like nowhere else. These trips weren’t particularly extended, but they were intense, and I had excellent guides with me who taught me an enormous amount.

Both trips were deeply troubling in very different ways, and taught me an enormous amount that I could never have learned from home-based research. However much you have read on the subject, seeing what a 46-year-long military occupation looks like is shocking and depressing.

I have moved a few things around through time and place, but I have gone out of my way to make the physical setting entirely accurate. The book may read like a fantasy dystopia, but in many ways, it is reportage.

After visiting the West Bank, I knew I had to give some of my royalties back to the place that inspired the book. I would have felt deeply uncomfortable if anyone had been able to accuse me of profiting from the suffering of others. Since the political reality at the heart of the book is to do with the theft of land, Playgrounds for Palestine seemed like the perfect charity to support. They build playgrounds in the West Bank, Gaza and in Palestinian refugee camps – so what they are essentially doing is providing the gift of space to children. This felt like a perfect counterbalance to a story about and for young people, about the theft of space.

WSD: While Joshua's story is probably unusual, the battle he experiences with his family is much more familiar territory for many teenagers. Would the story have changed significantly if his parents had behaved differently?

William Sutcliffe: The situation that Joshua faces is extreme and unusual, though I think it reflects something at the heart of all teenage experience. It is in our teenage years that we come to realise that we have to define ourselves as individuals, not just as part of a family unit. This involves thinking for yourself about your parents’ beliefs and maybe deciding that you have different beliefs – possibly about some deeply important issues. This, I think, is why the teenage years are so intense. Joshua’s realisation that his developing moral ideas are at odds with those of his parents is something that I hope young readers will find easy to identify with – although hopefully they won’t experience anything quite so terrifying!
You can read M's review of  The Wall  here.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Susan Cooper chat

We sat down for a chat...with Susan Cooper

Among this year’s Carnegie shortlisted books, Ghost Hawk perhaps has the standout character duo of them all and was one of my favourite books of last year. Its acclaimed author,  Susan Cooper, answers my questions about the novel (and her last answer brought a tear or two to my eye).

WSD: A lot has been made of the historical aspects of Ghost Hawk yet you view it as a fantasy. Can you say a little bit about mixing history and fantasy in fiction?

Susan Cooper: Ghost Hawk is basically a historical novel, but since one of its major characters is a ghost I suppose it has to be called a fantasy. A mongrel fantasy, perhaps.  I love dancing about in time - the "Dark Is Rising" books did it a lot - though it's hard work because you have to make sure your historical details are absolutely accurate. You can weave magic into the past, but you can't change the things that happened; that would be cheating.

WSD: In your Author's Note for Ghost Hawk, you hint at a vast admiration for Ursula le Guin. Can you say a bit about what le Guin means to you?

Susan Cooper: Well, she's a wonderful writer - especially "Earthsea" and those amazing dragons. We're quite different as writers -  like Alan Garner and Philip Pulllman I'm rooted in England's layers of time, whereas Ursula, like most American fantasists, invents totally separate worlds. But we're old friends.

WSD: You built a house on Little Hawk's island and this inspired your novel. Can you describe living on this island?

Susan Cooper: The saltmarsh is all round me, green in spring and golden in autumn, and at high tides the sea is all round me instead. Living here, you're haunted by the fact that the place has looked much like this since the last Ice Age, and that for thousands of years it was the hunting-ground of American Indians. Then the English settlers came 400 years ago, which is yesterday, and took it all.   I still wonder what really happened, every time I look out of the window. Look, here's what I see at sunrise.

Susan Cooper's sunrise - and what a sunrise it is!!

WSD: The relationship between Little Hawk and John is so vivid and is a real stand out feature, for me, of Ghost Hawk. What inspired or helped you to achieve this characterisation?

Susan Cooper: You've just made my week; that relationship is what the book was about from the beginning. The two of them just came into my head, as I sat there staring at the saltmarsh.  "Two boys", says my notebook, "because girls weren't free to act, then."     I wanted to tell the story of those two young minds, faced with the madness of the situation where a Thanksgiving dinner between friendly Indians and newly-arrived whites turns within sixty years to mutual slaughter; two friends, one on each side, trying to make a difference.  And failing - but it's always the trying that counts, and that will save us all in the end.  If we're lucky.


You can read M's review of Ghost Hawk here.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Kevin Brooks chat

We sat down for a chat...with Kevin Brooks

Kevin Brooks is the author of what might be the most controversial novel on this year’s Carnegie shortlist, The Bunker Diary. It’s about a teenager called Linus who is kidnapped and the novel is his diary. The novel is unflinching in its portrayal of tough issues and, partly because it doesn’t provide clear cut answers, it is also mind expanding for the reader. I’m delighted that Kevin Brooks has taken the time to consider my wanderings. For any librarians who’re wondering how they’re going to shadow The Bunker Diary with younger students, his answers may offer some inspiration.

Photo credit: Puffin
WSD: My reading of The Bunker Diary offered up a meta-fictional interpretation, suggesting that Linus is in a mental health institution (some readers suggest that is me in denial!). Other reviews have asked whether the novel might be an allegory. Other readers take the story quite literally. How do you view the novel - and is this different to how you viewed it while you were writing it?
Kevin Brooks: One of the many wonderful things about stories is that they can mean whatever the reader wants them to mean. In fact, for me, that's what actually makes them stories – they become part of the reader, part of their hearts and minds, and that in turn makes them into something much more than whatever they mean to the author. Your interpretation of the book, for example, is something that's honestly never occurred to me, but I love it, and now that I'm aware of it, it's become part of my understanding of the book.

As to how I view the novel ... well, without meaning to be mysterious or secretive or anything, I think other people's views are much more important than mine.

Norman Mailer called writing "the spooky art", and I've always taken that to mean that quite often authors aren't consciously aware of exactly what they're writing about or where it comes from. Personally I like to think it comes from those special places inside me that make me what I am, but which I don't necessarily understand on a rational level – and that's perfectly fine with me! 

Photo Credit: Puffin
WSD: Does the kidnapping setting of Liverpool Street station have any broader significance?
Kevin Brooks: Only in that I used to commute to work in London from Essex for many years before I was a published author, and Liverpool Street was my station.

WSD: You studied psychology and philosophy at university. Did these have any direct influences on The Bunker Diary concept or its characters?
Kevin Brooks: As well as my academic studies I've also had a lifelong fascination and love for psychology and philosophy, especially philosophy, and it's been a massive influence on all my books, not just The Bunker Diary. Philosophy, for me, is all about questions that don’t have any clear-cut answers; and that's also, for me, what life – and, as such, writing – is all about. It's not the answers themselves that matter so much as the journey you take in looking for them. 

WSD: Do you own any pets?
Kevin Brooks: Three dogs – Minnie, Midge, and Daffy – four rabbits, and five sheep.

(WSD: Oh my goodness! I wonder what breed of dog they are??!!!! J)

WSD: Is there anything you would like to say, and particularly in relation to The Bunker Diary?
Kevin Brooks: I'd like to quote from a book called The Aristos by John Fowles (whose novel The Collector is one of my all-time favourites and was one of the reasons I wanted to write The Bunker Diary. In The Aristos, Fowles wrote:

"We are in the best possible situation because everywhere, below the surface, we do not know: we shall never know why; we shall never know tomorrow; we shall never know a god or if there is a god; we shall never even know ourselves. This mysterious wall round our world and our perception of it is not there to frustrate us but to train us back to the now, to life, to our time being."

 To read my meta-fictional interpretation of The Bunker Diary, here’s my review.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Rebecca Stead chat

We sat down for a chat...with Rebecca Stead

Rebecca Stead is the award-winning author of the incredible When You Reach Me and the recently Carnegie shortlisted, Liar & Spy. Her novels are playful, thoughtful, charming and completely magical in some very unusual ways. We’ve asked her a few questions, inspired by reading Liar & Spy.

author Rebecca Stead
WSD: Have you ever been a member of a spy club?

Rebecca Stead: Yes, the kids upstairs and I had a spy club. It involved lurking in the elevator, and occasionally getting yelled at.

WSD: What are your favourite games?

Rebecca Stead: Word games (jotto, boggle, bananagrams) and card games, when I can remember the rules.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
WSD: What is your favourite food? Do you enjoy cooking?

Rebecca Stead: I do like cooking. Lately I'm into shrimp. But I most love to eat bread, pasta, rice, cereal . . . pretty much any member of the starch family. Plus anything dairy. Right now we have a very delicious soda bread on the kitchen counter (though I didn't make it).

WSD: Your novels create a great sense of place and make New York sound.....umami! Are there any real life places, which inspired elements of your novels, that you would urge readers to visit?

Rebecca Stead: Thank you! And yes, I urge everyone to visit DiFara's pizza on Avenue J in Brooklyn. It's very special, but the line gets long, so arrive early and hungry.

WSD: If you opened a fortune cookie, what would you hope it said?

Rebecca Stead: Peace is possible.


You can read M's reviews of  Liar & Spy and When You Reach Me.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

CILIP Carnegie 2014 shortlist

We've been following the CILIP Carnegie 2014 awards since the 76 nominated books were announced last year.  Today, the shortlist has been announced and we've picked 7 of the 8 shortlisted books! These 8 books have been selected from the longlist of 20 (which was whittled down from an original nominations list of 76) by a panel of librarian judges.

The 2014 Carnegie Shortlist
(links are included for reviews and author interviews)

1. All the Truth That's in Me - Julie Berry (Templar, 14+)

2. The Bunker Diary - Kevin Brooks (Puffin, 14+)

3. The Child's Elephant - Rachel Campbell-Johnston (David Fickling Books, 11+)

4. Ghost Hawk - Susan Cooper (Bodley Head, 11+)

5. Blood Family - Anne Fine (Doubleday, 14+)

6. Rooftoppers - Katherine Rundell (Faber & Faber, 11+)

7. Liar & Spy - Rebecca Stead (Andersen Press, 9+)

8. The Wall - William Sutcliffe (Bloomsbury, 11+)

There's a good mix from eight different publishing imprints with a variety of content and age range appeal (note, the age gudiance has been suggested by the judging panel although I'd say Rooftoppers will have appeal to some readers younger than 11). Kudos to the judges for including some of the 'older' titles, which just goes to show that the judging criteria aren't being muddied by age considerations.

We're disappointed that Annabel Pitcher's Ketchup Clouds is not on here and the surprise inclusion for me is Blood Family. Media headlines are speculating about Anne Fine becoming the first triple time winner but I don't think the novel is a strong enough contender on this shortlist. Little M is delighted that The Child's Elephant is on here, possibly her favourite book from last year. I haven't finished it yet so there's still a little shortlist reading for me to do! My personal favourite is still Julie Berry's All the Truth That's in Me but Rooftoppers perhaps has the hallmarks of a children's classic and would be a gorgeous winner.

Congratulations to all who have been nominated and onwards to our shadowing fun and games!!

Our favourites from the longlist:

Seven of the eight shortlisted books featured in our predictions. Because of the new longlisting stage that was introduced this year, we found that our 'predictions' had pretty much been made by the time the longlist was announced. So between Little M and I, we read just 13 of the 20 longlisted books. This Selection was based on a consideration of our personal reading tastes, the judging criteria and the opening pages. Our 8 favourites were first posted alongside the predictions of school librarians and a book blogger at A Case For Books last week.

We Sat Down's 8 favourites from the Longlist

PS. What with this year's shortlist, my Carnegie predictions last year, and recently judging for the Hot Key Young Writers Prize, I'm starting to feel that I'm currently in the wrong job. I sense a calling........
If you'd like to see a fun view of the 76 nominated books, take a look at our Carnegie Advent calendar.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Wall - William Sutcliffe

The Wall by William Sutcliffe
Review by M

The Wall has been nominated and longlisted for the Carnegie medal 2014.

The Wall by William Sutcliffe
The Wall is a compelling story about a young teenage boy who follows his curiosity, stumbles into something he can’t control and then tries to do ‘the right thing’, which heartbreakingly sets in motion a train of events that go catastrophically wrong.

Based on experiences of Israeli settlements of the occupied West Bank and written as a modern fable, The Wall is clearly intended to be a profound and important novel. Exploring the good and the ugly of moral decision making, it is one of those ought-to-read novels with a heartbreakingly poignant story and an overall call to action.

But, for all of its heavy and heartfelt subject matter, ironically this novel has a quiet and gentle tone.  The writing is often descriptive and the pace is often quite slow even though it is punctuated by a variety of chases and action. I occasionally found myself skipping bits because I wanted to know what happened. Saying that, the prose is eloquent so if you choose to linger, you’ll be in a good place. For me, Joshua's family problems and small romantic developments weakened the plot and distracted from the story.
There is violence in the novel but it is not graphic and would be suitable for younger readers. The back of the book recommends further reading for readers who are interested in discovering more about the conflicts between Israel and Palestine.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in how we live now and how we could live tomorrow. Also recommended for any teen who’s wondering about how to find their way in the world.

Publication details: Bloomsbury, 2013, London, hardback
This copy: review copy from the publisher

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Bunker Diary - Kevin Brooks

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks
Review by M

The Bunker Diary has been nominated and longlisted for the Carnegie medal 2014.


The Bunker Diary by Kevin BrooksIt’s Monday 30 January, 10 am.  Linus, a sixteen year old boy finds himself captive. He’s all alone in a rectangular building with six empty bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a clock and a lift. You, are reading his diary. As the days and the diary progress, so the story develops, deepens, darkens, regresses and unravels.     round and round and round

The Bunker Diary is a gripping, single-sitting existential thriller with plenty of meta-fictional elements and I loved it. The writing style flows easily and concisely and I developed only a limited attachment to the characters (there are quite a few). For various reasons, in The Bunker Diary’s case, this is not a criticism. Also, Linus, is not at all fond of Bird nor Anja (and this is very curious). Stylistically, the writing (and the novel’s printed text) change in clarity, pace and style in line with the story.

The plot’s surface subject matter – violent kidnapping and living with others in confined and frightening imprisonment – is unpleasant and the novel is fraught with psychological and physical violence that many (especially younger) readers may find shockingly disturbing. But older readers are likely to engage with the novel in many ways and importantly for me, the plot was secondary to the form.

Storywise, and by myself, I found the ending a bit flat. Certainly, there are unanswered questions but is this an unsatisfying cop out or part of the novel’s point? For me, the clues are in the novel’s form. In a discussion group, the ending, and the novel as a whole, may well prompt questions that take the novel someplace else.
If this novel appeals to you, then you may also enjoy Nick Lake's Hostage Three which also deals with psychologies in captivity, bankers and metafiction.

Based on my reading, The Bunker Diary was a very refreshing and provocative read. Highly recommended for mature teens and older. It is also a perfect example of a novel that I would never have read had it not been in the running for an award.
See below for my detailed thoughts - contains spoilers!!!!!!!

Publication details: Penguin, 2013, London, paperback
This copy: review copy from the publisher



My further thoughts and questions:


I didn’t fully believe the story because it was not a nice story and I didn’t want to believe it.  I got more enjoyment from the clues in the novel’s form. These are the questions that played through my mind while I was reading the book – and still do:


·         Um...did that actually happen? Or did he make it up? Was any of it real?

·         Was it a drug-induced diary or the writings of someone who’s losing their mind? Was it therapy? Was Linus writing a novel?

·         Children’s fiction and dogs! Why, oh why the Doberman??!!!

·         Who were all those characters? I’m glad I didn’t get overly attached to them because that would have been a problem.

·         Who was He? Was He ever there in the first place?

·         What happened with his mum?

·         Did anybody die or did anybody survive?

·         Or, was the story simply a diary about a kidnapping event? I definitely prefer my interpretation.


Thursday, 6 March 2014

Hostage Three - Nick Lake

Hostage Three by Nick Lake
Review by M

Hostage Three has been nominated and longlisted for the Carnegie 2014 medal.

Hostage Three by Nick LakePirate or banker? Can you tell the difference?

The opening scene is of a teenage girl, Hostage Three, who is being held hostage by pirates at gunpoint. I thought the novel would just be a bloody crime thriller for young adults (which is fine if you like that sort of thing), but it isn’t. It’s a thrilling and thought-provoking read that takes the reader right into the mucky heart of contemporary global economics and the psychologies of unequal relationships.

Like In Darkness, the chapters alternate to tell the stories of two characters whose lives are interwoven. The relationship between rich hostage Amy and poor Somali pirate Farouz provides the pivotal tension for the novel’s plot and its themes. But, unlike In Darkness, the whole novel is told from just one character’s perspective - Amy. This singular perspective probably broadens the novel’s appeal and accessibility but it also loses the distinct voices that carry In Darkness.

The novel’s last section, which is really an extended ending, was a disappointment. While I’m a fan of this sort of meta-fiction (playing with your audience and highlighting the ‘craft of fiction’) it didn’t really work for me and the story left me in disbelief. But for teen readers who haven’t come across this sort of thing in fiction, it will be a talking point.

I’d recommend this novel as a quick, thrilling and thought-provoking read and it exceeded my initial expectations tremendously. It reminded me considerably of Ann Patchett’s adult novel, Bel Canto. While Hostage Three doesn’t have the literary punch of In Darkness, Nick Lake has firmly cemented himself as a YA author who grapples successfully with big and controversially complex international (and psychological) issues. I am likely to buy his books without hesitation.  

Publication details: Bloomsbury, Jan 2013, London, hardback
This copy: received for review from the publisher

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Liz Kessler chat

Chutney sat down for a chat...with Liz Kessler

Today we have two guests on our blog! Our twelve year old guest reviewer, Chutney, loved Liz Kessler’s North of Nowhere, so we're delighted to bring both of them together on We Sat Down.

North of Nowhere by Liz KesslerChutney: What made you think of writing this book?

Liz Kessler: Quite a few years ago, I went on holiday to Scotland and visited a very small village that had been almost wiped out by a storm. The place stayed in my mind. Years later, I heard about another town, this time in Devon, where something similar had happened - only worse. This time, the whole town was destroyed. At this time, I was also thinking about writing a time travel book and the two ideas came together and led to North of Nowhere.

Chutney: Did you write it because you were inspired or can you just think of stories like that?

Liz Kessler: I was inspired by places and ideas. Usually with my books, something quite small will spark an idea. After that, it’s lots of work to turn it into a book!

Chutney: Is there a moral to the story?

Liz Kessler: I never intend to put morals or messages into my books. For me, what’s important is the story itself. However, I do often find that things which are important to me end up coming into my books. Perhaps that has happened with this one too - but I don’t usually realise it till someone tells me! If you think that there is a moral in there, that’s fine with me! :)

Chutney: Did you choose the cover for your book?

Liz Kessler: I was sent the cover and I thought it was beautiful - but it was all green. I asked if we could change the colour as it was a bit too green. So we tried all blue. That was a bit too…blue! So I suggested that we mix the two, with the blue above and green below - and that looked perfect! So I influenced the colours, but had nothing to do with the picture itself. The end result is one of my favourite covers on any of my books.

Chutney: Why are there trees on the cover of the book? There are no trees mentioned in the story.

Liz Kessler: Interesting question. I think that the trees are there to convey a sense of land close by. Using trees to do this, rather than houses, makes for a more dramatic-looking scene!

Chutney: And .....lastly, do you write books because you enjoy it or because you are good at it?

Liz Kessler: I do it because I love it! It’s my passion as well as my job. It’s for others to decide whether or not I’m any good at it! If you think I am good at it then I’m very grateful - thank you! :)
You can read Chutney's thoughts about North of Nowhere here.