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What the Christmas TV looks like for (UK) Kidlit fanatics

Radio Times, Christmas 2014

Yesterday I got my annual Radio Times. It’s a tradition, not just for me, but for many people in the UK. We carefully peruse the Christmas television listings, marking what we’d like to watch and what we’d like to record. Some people, I hear, even use a traffic light system to mark the priority viewing. Others use different coloured pens to mark the choices of different members of the household.

Not me though. I don’t share. My Christmas Radio Times is mine. It is selfish and it is irrational and it is entirely counter to the spirit of Christmas, but tough. If you go anywhere near my Radio Times with a pen or pencil, I will be forced to seriously reconsider my friendship with you. If you put an answer in the prize crossword at the back I will marry you just so I can expensively divorce you.

The magazine itself is always of interest to children’s literature fans, and this year is no different. The cover (see above) is designed by the inimitable Judith Kerr, sill going strong at 91 years old (she’s interviewed on page 61). Page 63 carries and interview with Michael Morpurgo, and David Walliams and Harry Hill, both stars of kidlit adaptations this year, talk about their writerly inspirations on page 59. Judi Dench, starring alongside Dustin Hoffman (Dustin Hoffman!) in a Roald Dahl adaptation is interviewed on page 20.

Radio Tmies, Christmas 1955

This year, the Daily Mirror reported that 63% of Christmas TV will be repeated from a previous year. They are up in arms as only the British press can be: demanding the BBC spends less money, then complaining when they do.

As well as a boatload of old and new movies* repeats are the backbone of Christmas televisual entertainment. Year on year we want to see Del Boy fall through the bar. We want to see The Vicar of Dibley force one more sprout into her and we want to watch Morcambe and Wise doing what ever it is they do that makes us laugh so much even though we’ve seen it a million times before.

Some repeats are annual traditions, and others are fast becoming so. Raymond Brigg’s heartbreaking 1978 picture book The Snowman was adapted to the small screen in 1982 and has been shown annually since then (this year it’s on Channel 4, 23 Dec). Its sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog which first aired in 2013 will be repeated on Christmas eve.

Julian Donaldson and Alex Scheffler’s The Gruffalo, first shown in 2009, and The Gruffalo’s Childfrom 2011, air on 23rd and 24rd respectively. The latest Donaldson/Scheffler contribution to the BBC’s animated stable Room on the Broom, will air on Boxing day.

Radio Times, Christmas 1997

Radio Times, Christmas 1997

Repeats are a part of Christmas. But new televisiual delights await us too. Following the success the BBC had in adapting David Walliams Gangsta Granny (repeated this year on 22 Dec at the ungodly hour of 07.45) this year they’re giving us The Boy in the Dress. Adapted for the screen by relative unknowns Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, Walliams debut novel airs Boxing Day. Here’s the trailer:

The BBC is also bringing us an adaptation of Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm series (Christmas eve, 8.30 pm BBC1), starring Harry HIll and featuring David Williams, Miranda Richardson, Charlie Higson and Ben Miller, among others.

But the thing I’m looking forward to most is a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot, written by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer and starring Dame Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman. Esio Trot is probably my favourite Dahl tale (no one tell The Vicar of Nibbleswicke). It’s a love story wherein the lovers are not nubile attractive 21 year olds, but white haired seniors. It’s just right for this time of year.

Michael Morpurgo’s contribution to our festive entertainments is twofold this year. On Christmas eve, BBC1, On Angels Wings, an animated version of the nativity story, written by Morpurgo and narrated by Michael Gambon. Says Morpurgo in the Radio Times,

I wanted to believe this story, to make it believable. […] Tell it again, your way, I thought. I had done this often enough with stories of old. I could do it again, even with this iconic story so full of religious and universal significance.

Yes, the shepherds would have to leave, I thought, but if they did the would leave someone behind to look after the sheep. The youngest of them, the shepherd boy. So he is left there on his own with the sheep while the others go off to Bethlehem!

On Angel Wings promises to be a version of the Christmas story that even a Godless heathen like me can enjoy.

Finally, War Horse at the Proms, which took place at the Royal Opera House in August, will be shown on BBC on Boxing Day. It’s a programme inspired by the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, with an original score supplemented by music from Ravel, Holst, Elgar and others. Perfect for curling up in front of with a mince pie and a small dry sherry.

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*Films for kidlit enthusiasts are too numerous to mention; maninly in the form of big screen adaptations of books. Finding Neverland, The Secret Garden, 101 Dalmations, Snow White and the Huntsman, Shrek (and sequels), Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mary Poppins and The Grinch are all showing over the festive period, along with literally hundreds of others.

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Review: Prankenstein, Andy Seed

Prankenstein

Prankenstein

Fat Fox Books,  RRP £6.99 Pubished  August 2014. Suitable for ages 8-12

Publishers blurb:

“When Soapy’s granny is shot through the roof on a turbo-charged stair lift, he knows that something is not right. Someone, or something, is playing incredible, hilarious pranks – but who? Soapy and his friend appoint themselves chief detectives to solve the mystery and discover that the culprit is a hairy, superhuman figure with a shocking secret!

I hate giving books sparkling reviews. There can’t, I tell myself, be nothing critical to say. You’ve got to be honest and balancedAnd that means pointing out the bad as well as the good.

Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – a book lands on my doormat that is pretty bulletproof. Even then, I can usually find a few negative  things to say. I am an eternal pessimist. Negativity comes easy to me.

Not so Prankenstein. Prankensein is Practically Perfect right up until the last chapter, in which an unsatisfying deus ex machina ending dampens what is otherwise an excellent story. The humour is delightful. The narrative is captivating. Even the boring technical bits – number and freqency of illustrtations, chapter length, language pitch – are exemplary.

The problem is, it seems, that Andy Seed knows his audience too well.  He’s written a handful of homework-helpers,  a trio of memoirs (based on his experiences teaching primary school) and an assortment of poetry collections and miscellanies. Prankenstein is his first novel, but you’d never know it. It’s a well crafted, funny, and escapist read which I’d like to compare to David Walliams or Dav Pikey, if only doing so wouldn’t suggest Prankentstein was much lower quality than it is. Where David Walliams churns out anything vaguely absurdist safe in the knowledge that it will sell, Seed crafts a narrative that’s both absurd and entirely logical; where Dav Pikey’s willy-bum-bogeys brand of subversion is insultingly patronising, Seed’s is well-pitched and funny. In a fast-paced narrative, Seed never drops the ball or loses our interest but keeps us engaged right up to the last page.

The story concerns the appearance of a malevolent being who is playing tricks on just about everyone ten-year-old Soapy knows. Bottoms are stuck to chairs; false teeth are replaced; cows are to be found where cows should not be and it all the evidence points to Soapy as the culprit. With the spectre of boarding school hanging over him if the practical jokes don’t stop, Soapy turns detective, and, with the help of his friends the Twince, unmasks the prankster.

All the characters are nicely realised and will be familiar to most readers, especially Soapy’s nemesis Venus, a spoiled, celebrity-obsessed prima donna who (naturally) gets her just desserts. Seeds use of voice to convey character never descends too far into caricature, but hovers around the line of ‘overdone’, spilling over only when there’s a good joke to be made.

In in 2008  the School Libraries Association noted How to Spot a Hadrosaur in a Bus Queue on their list of 100 books to get boys readingPrankenstein deserves a place on that list too.  I’ve written before about reluctant male readers, but I focussed then on the reading boys do that isn’t in the usual format; reading comics. Here is a story presented in a traditional prose narrative – it’s not a graphic novel or a comic book – that is guaranteed to have kids, even reluctant ones, turning the pages. It’s a delightful diversion, neither too simple nor too complex for reluctant or struggling readers. If it wasn’t for the ending I’d award full marks, but even still, Prankenstein deserves 9/10.

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Review: Billionaire Boy; David Walliams

David Walliams; Billionaire Boy

Published in paperback June 2011, Harper Collins. List price £6.99

Appropriate for ages 7-11.

From the cover;

‘Meet Joe Spud, the richest 12-year-old in the world. Joe has everything he could ever want: his own Formula One racing car, a thousand pairs of trainers, even an orang-utan for a butler!

Yes, Joe has everything he wants, but there’s just one thing he really needs: a friend…’

David Walliams’ first offering, The Boy in the Dress was a mildly subversive but otherwise unremarkable book. Lucky to have both fame and illustrator Quentin Blake on his side, the book was nevertheless a bestseller. His follow-up, Mr Stink, though released under significantly less fan-fare, was awarded The People’s Book Award in 2010.  So we come to the third novel from the Walliams stable: Billionaire Boy.

Let me get this out of the way before I start. The premise – that money doesn’t buy happiness – is the kind of thing that poor people say when they want to console themselves and rich people say when they’re feeling guilty. And they’re right. Directly, money doesn’t buy happiness. But it really really helps. For every character in lit that finds happiness after losing everything, there are 100 people in actual real life whose lives are made that much better with the provision of a bit of spare cash. The lonely rich kid trope is a common one in television, film and literature, and Billionaire Boy does nothing to challenge the model.

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