A few posts back I reviewed Eoin’ Colfer’s, The Seal’s Fate, which was sent to me by dyslexia friendly publisher Barrington Stoke. It is one of their new series, called Conkers, an imprint of delectably high quality stories for eight to ten year olds.
Conkers have Barrington Stoke’s trademark beautiful attention to detail as far as finish goes. They also have their short, achievable chapters, well designed font for those with reading difficulties, and plenty of space on the page for the eye to orient properly. They also have fabulous, full colour illustrations, and as with their Little Gem series, we are treated to wonderfully well thought out pairings between author and illustrator.
These stories are more complex than the Little Gem series. They ask difficult questions they don’t always answer, they pose moral problems, they put the reader and the characters in situations where they are asked to think. They have real meat on their bones. They should not be dismissed just because they have lovely pictures in them. These books can pose challenges and are entirely appropriate for the age range they have been designed for. There is no way anyone could dismiss them as babyish.
The second book I was sent is Clare and her Captain by Michael Morpurgo. In it, he embellishes on a real story his wife told him about a time she went on holiday to Devon as a teenager. In the story, the character of Clare spends a lot of time away from her warring parents, exploring the countryside. One day she meets a solitary old man and his elderly horse. The man is friendly and accepting of her, and she falls in love with the old horse, Captain.
When Clare’s dad finds out where she has gone, he is very angry and forbids her from visiting Thatcher Jones. Clare’s mum is not so sure this is the right thing to do, and Clare manipulates the difficulties between her parents to go and visit Captain again.
Captain dies, and Clare tries to help Thatcher Jones, by finding him a new horse to look after. It doesn’t work out quite as planned.
I admit that I was slightly perturbed by this story. I find Michael Morpurgo’s brutal realism when it comes to writing about animals a bit hard to handle, but I have to say that this is not quite as terrifyingly morbid as some of his other offerings, which was a nice change.
The other thing I found problematic, but which I think would be good material to talk about with young readers, is the whole issue of the messed up dynamic between Clare and her parents, and her friendship with Thatcher Jones. Morpurgo makes it clear in the afterword that this is a story from the past, where things were slightly different, but it can be difficult for readers to make this distinction. There isn’t a great deal in the text to indicate that this is more how things were a long time ago, and it is absolutely not alright to wander off alone with strangers, even if your mum and dad are arguing.
What I really enjoyed were the absolutely beautiful illustrations by Catherine Rayner. She has been a favourite of mine for a while. I used to take Harris Finds His Feet to school regularly when I was reading to younger children. Her illustrations are exquisite and really bring the book to life for me.
You can read a sample from Clare and the Captain here.