Book Review – The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt

It’s time for my next book review but a bit of a preamble first. For those who don’t know me, I trained as a chemical engineer before I started writing. I also have a science-obsessed daughter who had us read The Natural History Museum Book of Dinosaurs to her when she was four, and who was receiving adult books on astronomy, science and nature for her birthdays from an early age. My favourite of her birthday books is The Elements by Theodore Gray. It is visually spectacular and the text is very readable, challenging and, at times, funny. The page on carbon is fascinating.

Which brings me to the non-fiction picture book, The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt (who, incidentally, is also an engineer). The Diamond and the Boy is a remarkable book about graphite (aka carbon), diamond (aka carbon) and Tracy Hall (the man who created the first diamond-making machine). The book is popular in review circles and Hannah has also discussed her process on a number of blogs (links for a selection of these are at the end of this review), so I will try to bring something new to the discussion.

Creating non-fiction picture books that engage the child is no easy task. There are facts you can’t fudge for the sake of a story and in the past, those facts have been presented in a relatively dry manner – facts must be boring, right? Thanks to the wonderful selection of non-fiction children’s books on the market this has changed and we are seeing books that stay true to the facts and also present an engaging text for children. I could have chosen any number of remarkable non-fiction books to review, so why The Diamond and the Boy?

The Diamond and the Boy appeals to the engineer and the parent in me. It’s a book that humanises science. It’s a book I wish I’d had for my science obsessed daughter so I didn’t have to wade through dry facts each night. The lyricism creates evocative reading. The parallel narratives set up a metaphor for Tracy Hall being as tough as diamonds without being clichéd. But it also shows that you don’t have to be tough to succeed. It demonstrates key attributes parents want for their children: curiosity, determination, patience, perseverance and resilience.

The Diamond and the Boy is also a book about grandparents. Tracy Hall is Hannah’s grandfather. This isn’t apparent in the main text, however, the back matter on Tracy’s life shows the relationship they had and the relationship Hannah wanted. In fact, all the back matter in this book is excellent reading. Hannah doesn’t shy away from the issue of blood diamonds and she presents the history of diamonds and Tracy Hall’s legacy in a timeline.

The incorporation of science, engineering, biography, history and human relationships and traits in one short picture book is a marvel. To present it in a way that feels authentic and natural is what makes this book remarkable.

A version of this post also appears on The Wonder of Words.

Arohanui

This is a short post in light of recent events in New Zealand. So much has already been said, and said much better than I could say it. But these events got me thinking about a time a number of years ago when my kids were finally old enough to be left home alone. There were some sibling tensions as there are in most households so I trotted out three words, pretty much off the cuff, as I left: patience, tolerance and consideration. As it turned out, those words were fairly accurate and the ones they needed to hear (although later we changed consideration to communication). I am reminded of those words now – all four of them. I can’t change the world, but I can practise patience, tolerance, consideration and communication with my family, with my friends, with my workmates and with my local community, and that seems like a good place to start. Arohanui.

Toulon – more than just rough charm

Over a year ago now, in November 2017, my husband and I set off from New Zealand to France, destination Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. This is what Lonely Planet online says about Toulon:

“It has a certain rough charm, and although it’s getting progressively more attractive, most visitors just pass through.”

Perhaps it’s a good thing we are unseasoned travellers who don’t read Lonely Planet reviews! Even though we still would have gone, perhaps our minds would have been closed and the time we spent there would not have been as rewarding.

Our trip was for research purposes for my current YA work-in-progress about a girl from Toulon who travels to Kororāreka (Russell, New Zealand) in 1827-1828. And thank goodness we went: I had prostitutes living in the wrong part of town, people seeing a mountain that can’t be seen, and the sun going north instead of south … okay, so I should have known better about the sun but sometimes, even though you know something, you don’t KNOW it until you’ve seen it.

I had worried about my husband being stuck in one place for three weeks with nothing to do, but my worry was unfounded. Toulon Naval Base is the second largest naval base in France and its museum kept us both absorbed for hours. Waterfront shops remained open during the offseason and he spent hours there as well; we came home with carefully selected purchases of compasses, sailing hats and, his favourite, a small hand-held telescope. The old town was ripe for exploring and we would wander off, separately or together, to absorb the atmosphere. He even seemed to enjoy being directed down side streets taking notes while I wrestled with copies of old street maps.

We had planned to take a number of day trips; Menton had been floated as an idea so we could see the house where New Zealand writers go for their Katherine Mansfield residencies, and he wanted to go to Monte Carlo. We’d even discussed a weekend in Barcelona. But a few sick days on my part put paid to any major excursions. Instead, we took a number of shorter trips. One day saw us drive up Mont Faron to look out over Toulon and then to Sanary-sur-Mer. Sanary is a lovely fishing village with quaint fishing boats lined up along the quay and a beautiful church.

Our second jaunt was to Le Beausset and from there a 40-minute walk to Le Castellet, a small, walled, medieval village. Very sweet and we were just about the only tourists there – heaven. In fact, I would hazard a guess there were more cats than tourists!

Our third excursion took us just ten minutes by bus to Mourillon (Toulon’s main beach area) and our final day trip was to St Tropez, a two-and-a-half-hour drive with a crazy bus driver who I was certain would drop us into a ravine. The lure of St Tropez was actually Port Grimaud, a recently built village using a canal network similar to Venice and just 20 minutes by ferry from St Tropez – except no ferries were running and we were told Port Grimaud was basically closed for winter. St Tropez itself looked basically closed for winter too but we visited the citadel and museum on the hill above the town and got in some accidental research – a lovely surprise.

While Toulon might not be Lonely Planet’s idea of a tourist destination, we found the location perfect, the people friendly and a number of excellent attractions within an easy hour or two by bus, ferry or foot. It even snowed while we were there which made the whole experience quite surreal – I never knew it snowed on the Mediterranean coast!

Fourteen months later my YA novel is still a work-in-progress, but I have now taken my protagonist out of Toulon and she is on her way to New Zealand. Let the next part of the adventure begin.

Book Review – The Mapmakers’ Race by Eirlys Hunter

Happy New Year and welcome to Pendants and Paperbacks 2019. Holidays are the perfect time to catch up on reading and I have been doing a lot of that over the past week or so. As part of my regular book review series, I’d like to share with you my thoughts on  Eirlys Hunter’s junior novel, The Mapmakers’ Race.

Sal, Joe, Francie and Humphrey Santander’s father hasn’t returned from his latest expedition. Worn out with worry and with no money left, their mapmaking mother chooses to enter the family in the Mapmakers’ Race. Contestants have 28 days to find and map the best route through the unchartered wilderness from Grand Prospect to New Coalhaven. With a prize pool that will solve almost all of their problems what have the Santanders got to lose? Unfortunately, a lot. When the children’s mother is left behind at a train station en route to the start line, the children are stranded in Grand Prospect not knowing what to do. Finally, they decide to embark on the race by themselves, hoping their mother can catch up.

What ensues is a madcap adventure as the Santander children do their best to make their parents proud in spite of dangerous terrain, terrifying beasts, villainous adults and each other. Every day provides a new challenge for the children and they overcome each one through quick thinking, experimentation and perseverance. While not set in our world, the story is not completely fantastical either: perhaps the best way to describe it is magical realism set in a world similar to our own with just a splash of steampunk. Some of the scenes could be a little scary for younger children but I am a firm believer that in the safety of a book children need to see dangerous and scary scenarios worked through and overcome.

Eirlys Hunter has devised a strong cast of characters and an engaging plot to create a true adventure story where overcoming obstacles to meet the final goal is key. Not only does she write adventure with skill, but in the story’s down moments she also has a beautiful way with words. Here is a taste:

The moon hung so big and bright that he could barely make out any stars until he turned his back to the moon and looked towards the dark horizon where there were tens, then hundreds, then thousands of stars pulsing silently – chips of ice in an infinite, frozen world.

Alongside Hunter’s rollicking text are illustrations by Kirsten Slade whose map drawings add shape to the story.

If you are interested in investigating further, there is the Look Inside feature on Amazon plus an extract in The Sapling. The Mapmakers’ Race can be purchased at Amazon or the Book Depository. If you are in New Zealand please support your local bookstore or order online at The Children’s Bookshop, Wellington.

This review has also been posted on The Wonder of Words website.

The Pendants in Pendants and Paperbacks

Given my blog is called Pendants and Paperbacks, I’d better give pendants some air time.

I admire the way my mum dresses. I have since I was in my thirties and started looking out beyond myself. I had also become a mother and knew how difficult it was to pull on a non-food-plastered item of clothing and look half decent. At that time she no longer had children at home and being too self-centred before my thirties I probably didn’t notice the clothes she wore in a previous lifetime.

But when I did start noticing, I saw a fashionable woman in her fifties choosing outfits that complimented her figure and her colouring, and I noticed how she wore scarves. I loved her scarves. I loved the way she flung them nonchalantly around her neck where they would sit in perfect unison with her outfit. I wanted to be like her – stylish and scarf-savvy. But scarves made me look like a clothes horse pegged with damp socks, so for a while, I abandoned my mission to dress like her.

Then one day, quite by accident, I found my signature style with necklaces. I can’t remember the first necklace I bought or when or where I wore it. Nowadays I have a wall-hook filled with necklaces, and I never travel overnight without at least five to choose from.

Last year my husband and I went to Toulon, France. Yes, I took a bundle of necklaces, but I wasn’t leaving Toulon without at least one new one. We were there in time for the Christmas markets and one of the stalls was filled with necklaces (one was filled with huge slabs of chocolate but that’s a story for another day). The necklaces were a little more delicate than I normally wear but after trying on just about every one available I selected two. At that point, I had chosen my blog name, Pendants and Paperbacks, so I just had to get the one that looked like a pile of books. I loved the colours and the jagged stack – it was perfect. The other one was an asymmetrical cluster of geometrical shapes in red and black – my favourite combination.

One reason I went for more delicate choices is that I was shopping with my husband and anything more flamboyant wasn’t going to fly. Outside the Toulon Opera House, there was a woman selling the boldest and most outrageous neck ornaments (for they were so much more than a necklace or pendant) in huge floral arrangements. I loved them. But the look on my husband’s face told me not to buy one. Normally, I don’t kowtow to what he thinks but, if I’m honest, they felt a little too chichi even for me. But, you know how there are some non-purchasing decisions that you regret? This is one of mine. I wish I had bought one. Even if I had never worn it, it expressed so much about the person I can be but who often isn’t seen. Now, when I long to see them again, I realise we took no photos; we didn’t even get a business card or ask if she had a website. And, funniest of all, the Toulonaisse I am working with on my novel research says she has never seen or heard of the floral pendant lady who sits outside the Opera House!

Pendants and paperbacks, necklaces and books, signature style and favoured genre, whatever way you look at it stories and costume jewellery are my happy place.

Book Review – Once Long Ago

Once Long Ago, the book I read as a child until it fell apart, is the book I have chosen for my first review.

Once Long Ago: Folk and Fairy Tales of the World, first published in 1962 by Golden Pleasure Books, is a collection of 70 traditional tales from 49 different cultures retold by Roger Lancelyn Green and illustrated by Vojtěch Kubašta.

As well as compiling myths, legends, and fairy tales from around the world, Green was a biographer of children’s writers and a member of the Oxford literary group, the Inklings, along with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  In Once Long Ago, Green’s writing retains the fairy tale format of earlier versions while creating a magic that appealed to me as a child, and still does as an adult. My old favourites, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Snow White, are all included and I quickly gained new favourites: the Australian tale, The Bunyip, the Flemish tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the Norse tale, Why the Sea is Salt.

I have read questions online about how accurate Green may have been in writing stories from cultures other than his own. We have to remember that this book was published in 1962 and to have a volume of such diverse tales from a wide range of cultures is to be commended. I am choosing to believe that Green researched these stories thoroughly and took due care and time when creating his versions of them. The English story, The Three Bears, does support this view since there is no Goldilocks in sight. Instead, the original character, a little old woman, is the antagonist.

Not only is this book a fine example of great storytelling, it is also a work of art. Born in Vienna, Kubašta moved to Prague when he was four. He studied architecture and civil engineering but soon moved into his life-long career as a commercial artist and book designer. He is perhaps most famous for his pop-up books. His illustrations in Once Long Ago are bold, bright and filled with emotion: the image of the old witch on her raft of snakes in the Armenian tale Zoulvisia is impressively evil, the arrogance of the chicken in the Spanish tale The Half-Chick is cleverly depicted, and my favourite image of all, that of the girl in the English tale Coat of Rushes accepting her new silver dress from the fairy, is hauntingly beautiful.

A few years ago, for a significant birthday, I treated myself to my own copy of the book to the tune of $NZ500. It may seem odd that I am reviewing a book now classed as “hard to find” and costing a fair penny to buy should you find a copy. What I want to illustrate is the need for children to be exposed to traditional tales. In New Zealand, books of Māori myths and legends by Peter Gossage or Gavin Bishop are strong contenders for any bookshelf, Xoë Hall is creating stunning editions of myths and legends in English and te reo Māori, and Annie Rae Te Ake Ake has retold 15 tales all impressively illustrated by young Kiwi artists. Look for volumes further afield too. I learnt about people different to me through the tales in Once Long Ago and I would like to think this created a strong foundation for fairness, acceptance and tolerance. I encourage you to find a modern collection of traditional tales from around the world; one filled with gorgeous illustrations and magical stories, preferably one where the stories are written and illustrated by people who grew up with them. Since this is such a personal choice I can’t recommend what volume you buy, but I can say that if your children read it until it is faded and frayed then it is a book well-loved and one they will carry with them forever.

The Re-Launch of Katharine Derrick

Welcome to the re-launch of katharinederrick.co.nz, rebranded as Pendants and Paperbacks.

I am a writer and a reader and have been known to read books until they fall apart. The first book I read until it was faded and frayed was a huge volume of folktales, called Once Long Ago. Unfortunately, it was on loan; I hope that when Mum returned it to the original owners, they understood just how much that book was loved. Since then the Harry Potter series has joined the ranks of books with sad-looking spines, although I maintain that was due to my children as much as me.

Once Long Ago started a life-long search for story. My first published work was a fifty-word micro; more recently I have been published in takahē magazine with my short story ‘The Auburn Trail’. I have had numerous pieces of flash fiction appearing online in Flash Frontier, one of which gained a Pushcart nomination. I am a key organiser for writing events in Northland, New Zealand, and teach applied writing online at NorthTec. My current works-in-progress are picture books and a YA novel.

Besides a love of reading and writing, one thing that defines me is the necklaces I wear. Now, I have no sense of style what-so-ever, I wear the most casual of clothes, I rarely wear make-up, I ignore my stylish mother when she tells me to dispose of a favourite, well-worn and tatty jacket. But I do make a statement with my necklaces – the bigger and bolder the better. What better tagline than one that encompasses who I am? And so Pendants and Paperbacks was born.

My aim with this blog is to be eclectic, to write about anything that takes my fancy, to be varied and interesting, to be me. Story is a key part of my life so I will review, discuss and comment on what I’m reading or studying or watching. And, of course, I will need to document my sense of style, so posts on necklaces or my favourite designer or things I wish I had the courage to wear will appear sporadically, as will posts about my pets because I think they are cute and funny even if no one else does. And very irregularly you might find me posting about what’s going on with me in the writing world.

Posts will appear every three weeks or so, or maybe every three months, or maybe randomly, or maybe never – let’s see how we go with that! This should give you confidence that you can follow my blog and not be inundated with my ramblings. I promise – unless something absolutely amazing is going down – once every three weeks will be the minimum gap between posts.

Thanks to Shelby Derks-Wyatt for the banner design. A selection of Shelby’s work can be viewed here.

You might also like to visit The Wonder of Words: Engaging readers in children’s literature, where I blog along with five other children’s authors.