The Ultimate Book Guide: Over 600 great books for 8-12s
Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn (editors) Susan Reuben (associate editor)
Anne Fine, Children’s Laureate 2001-3 (introduction)
A & C Black 2004
I couldn’t resist picking this up secondhand, especially as I love books that I can dip into, for both reliable references and for random rummaging. Despite not being completely up-to-date (what printed publication can ever be?) or truly comprehensive (as far as I can see most of the books are Eurocentric or North American, so very little world literature) this is a volume I shall hang on to — that is, unless I get my hands on the 2009 edition (subtitle: Over 700 Great Books for 8-12s).
Laurie Frost: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide
Scholastic 2007 (2006)
Pullman’s wonderful trio of novels inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared around the same time as the Harry Potter books, but Pottermanes looking for more of the same were in the main disappointed. The feisty heroine Lyra, her universe of externalised souls called daemons, armoured polar bears and a mysterious phenomenon called Dust, not to mention criticism of an organised religious institution, confused and even angered many.
Sadly, the controversies often disguised Pullman’s accomplishments in world-building, complex plotting and character creation, all of which have contributed towards a work already acclaimed as a classic and which, true to its universal appeal, appeared in both adult and young adult editions. All that was needed was an Ariadne to take the reader through the labyrinthine ways of the multi-layered fantasy, as Martin Gardner did in The Annotated Alice.
Containing all you ever wanted to know about His Dark Materials, catalogued in encyclopaedic detail by superfan Laurie Frost, this hefty guide is teeming with maps, photos and drawings which enliven the text.
I love words. (You may possibly have noticed.) It’s one of the delights of reading, not just the storyline or characters but the way that sentences and phrases break down before being reassembled, the collocations or how their constituent words are juxtaposed or arranged.
I’m partial to commas, colons, brackets and semicolons (again, you might have noticed) because the more that words and phrases are put together in different relationships the richer the language becomes. So much nicer than the jumble of clichés that we customarily read, hear, write and say, at least to my way of thinking. (Of course, it’s almost impossible not to avoid those habitual collocations — as, for example, erm, my way of thinking.)
And let’s not forget the secondary meaning of ‘collocation’, literally ‘the positioning of things side by side’. I present above a conflation of both definitions, a collocation of dictionaries. You’re now itching to know the background to those volumes, are you not?
Edwin Moore and Fiona Mackenzie Moore Concise Dictionary of Art and Literature
Tiger Books International 1993
With entries ranging from Alvar Aalto to Francisco Zurbarán spread over 440-plus pages this is my kind of book, whether I’m dipping in, looking up a specific reference or finding that one entry leads to another. The clues are in the book’s title: there are short paragraphs on artists and writers, on artistic schools and techniques and on writing styles and genres.
Opening a double page at random I find a discussion (page 340) on Realism in both literature and art which includes references to George Eliot, Courbet, Gorky and Magic Realism; on the opposite page I can read about Redskins and Palefaces — not an obscure title by Arthur Ransome but a phrase to distinguish those who write about the outdoors (such as Hemingway) and those who focus on ‘indoor’ matters (Henry James is cited) — and, lower down the page, I find a note about relief sculpture in all its forms.
I’m assuming that Fiona Mackenzie Moore contributed the art entries and Edwin Moore the literary items, as the former also wrote the 1992 Dictionary of Art, while the latter, according to the Guardian, is a former senior editor who spent 18 years working in non-fiction publishing and now writes reference books. The literature entries are often characterised by sly humour and dry observations, such as this entry for Fiona Macleod: Continue reading “Mischievous, not misleading”→
Percy Alfred Scholes The Oxford Companion to Music
Oxford University Press 1963 (1955)
The ninth edition of The Oxford Companion to Music, first published in 1955 and still under the control of the original editor, is authoritative, idiosyncratic and certainly of its time. A typical example of Percy Scholes’ writing style can be seen in the Preface to the original edition of 1938:
Following this preface will be found the long list of the many who have tried to save the author from, at least, the faults of his own ignorance or inadvertence, but should the reader chance to discover that the author is anywhere insufficiently saved he should not take it that the blame necessarily falls on those enumerated in the list.
A footnote helpfully tells us that In the present edition this long list, with its many additional names from the seven intervening editions, has been merely summarised. This circumloquacious tendency may appear to explain the nearly twelve hundred pages of this hardback, but in truth they are packed with detailed information and references. The detail includes entries on composers, styles, genres, countries, foreign musical terms, instruments, synopses of operas and much else. Interwoven are close on two hundred monochrome plates illustrating different themes, using old prints, photographs and diagrams. Continue reading “Authoritative, idiosyncratic and of its time”→
Peter Vance Message to a Grandchild Foreword by Anne Robinson
Sidgwick & Jackson 2003
Two thousand and three was for me a notable year: our second grandchild was born; after nearly three decades fulltime in post at one school I resigned my teaching post; and a former pupil, a 16-year-old student at that school, had his first book published. This book was the extraordinary Message to a Grandchild, a slim volume but one that I kept and keep on dipping into as the years go by.
Neil Fairbairn A Traveller’s Guide to the Kingdoms of Arthur
Evans Brothers Ltd 1983
Geoffrey Ashe The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain
Gothic Image 1997
Neil Fairbairn’s 1983 Traveller’s Guide inevitably invited comparisons with Geoffrey Ashe’s A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain (1980 and 1983, confusingly reissued as The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain in 1997). This would be unfortunate as the two are different animals, each with its own particular strengths and weaknesses, though both include illustrations and maps.
Derek Brewer and Ernest Frankl Arthur’s Britain: the Land and the Legend
Guild Publishing 1986 (1985)
This illustrated gazetteer has an authoritative introductory essay by the late Derek Brewer, a distinguished academic and publisher who died in 2008. The illustrations which accompany the introduction all come from late medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and show how their techniques and purposes changed from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The photographs in the gazetteer proper are by Ernest Frankl, with accompanying maps drawn by Carmen Frankl; I’m guessing that both Ernest and Carmen have since passed away as Trinity Hall Cambridge has an Ernest and Carmen Frankl Memorial Fund to cover travel for educational purposes.
ANNO D[OMINI] 1701 is the year this façade was built, now part of Bristol Galleries shopping mall
The Field Guide to Typography: typefaces in the urban landscape
by Peter Dawson.
Thames & Hudson 2013
Nowadays our familiarity with typefaces derives from the choices we have when writing electronic documents, such as Arial, Book Antiqua, Comic Sans, Courier New, Lucida Console, Palatino Linotype, Times New Roman, Verdana and so on. But did you know that there are well over 150,000 typefaces available, a number that grows with every day? And that many of these typefaces have been around in one form or another since at least the middle of the 15th century, when the printing press was introduced into Europe, and some a lot earlier?
Appropriately, this book’s Foreword by Stephen Cole points to ornithology as an analogy, with typography enthusiasts as preoccupied as any birder with identification, classification, distinguishing features and documentation. Even more aptly this guide includes a photo of a pile of books on birdwatching, with an explanatory key to the various typefaces used on the individual spines.
Peter Dawson’s Field Guide is just a little different from those birding books.
Paul Wake, Steve Andrews and Ariel, editors Waterstone’s Guide to
Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror
Series editor Nick Rennison
Waterstone’s Booksellers 1998
Although getting a bit outdated now (the Waterstones apostrophe, dropped to howls from purists early in 2012, is still there in its full glory) this is a ready reference giving a flavour of the range of authors and works in the three genres. It’s not exhaustive of course — no work could be, especially in these ever-popular genres — but I find it useful to dip into for a quick and often quirky summary of an author new to me. As such it fulfils the aim outlined in the introduction, to answer the question (and variants of it) that staff are frequently asked: “I’ve read Tolkien [or some other big name]. What should I try next?” While of necessity slewed to the UK market as it was in the late 20th century it tries to be as comprehensive as is practical in its 200-odd pages; and, while it’s a mystery why it hasn’t since been reissued in revised editions, I shall be keeping this copy on my shelves for a little while longer.
A Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud.
Oxford University Press, 2001 (2000).
For me the best reference books are those which not only provide an entry matching your initial query but which also encourage you to browse and read other not always related entries. This Oxford Dictionary does it for me on both counts: authoritativeness and readability. Folklore here is rightly interpreted as including aspects of modern popular culture as well as topics beloved of antiquarians.
Authored by two stalwarts of the Folklore Society — who should then know what they are talking about — the Dictionary contains over 1250 entries covering a wide range of topics including seasonal customs, traditional tales, superstitions and beliefs. Key figures involved in the recording of lore are noted here, and evidence presented that folklore is part of a continually evolving process. What makes this book particularly worthwhile is that not all so-called traditional lore is accorded uncritical acceptance, a plus for any truth-seeker when Victorian speculation about origins and meaning often became spurious fact.
For those wanting more there are relevant references and a bibliography, and in common with many in this Oxford reference series, pretty pictures are excluded in favour of more text. Sometimes this is a disadvantage but in this case I’d rather have more entries than a limited number of select and maybe unrepresentative illustrations. (Having said which, I include a curious photo of 19th-century mummers acting out their seasonal play.)
Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopædia
by David Day.
Mitchell Beazley 1993 (1991)
This is a work that attempts to live up to its title: it includes an introduction to Tolkien’s published works (not just related to Middle Earth), then rushes straight into chapters on history, geography, peoples and nations (pretentiously called sociology here), natural history and a Who’s Who in Middle Earth, finally ending with indices and acknowledgements.
Because David Day doesn’t just limit himself to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there are charts and maps that help to place the War of the Ring in context, and the whole is profusely illustrated by nearly a score of artists.
The New Arthurian Encyclopedia
Edited by Norris J Lacy et al
Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1996
With the publication of The Arthurian Encyclopedia in 1986 students were able to access, in one volume, academic discussion on a range of Arthurian topics — art, history, literature, fiction, drama, music and cinema for example — across space and time, all listed in alphabetical order. In 1991 an updated hardback edition was published as — naturally — The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, followed by a paperback edition in 1996 which was itself supplemented by an addendum detailing video games and new fiction that had appeared in the intervening years.
Anybody remotely interested in Arthurian matters should own or at least have regular access to this last volume, despite a desperate need for it to be updated yet again some two decades on from its last publication.
With its multiplicity of contributors the Encyclopedia is authoritiative and wide-ranging, from book-length entries covering Arthurian literature in most European languages to short descriptions of minor authors of Arthurian-related fiction, from films to computer games (though many of these will be positively antediluvian by now) and from two- and three-dimensional artwork to drama on both stage and screen. All entries are credited to one or more named contributors and many include a select bibliography. Packed into over 600 pages is a preface and lists of the hundred-plus contributors, entries by category and illustrations, followed by a bibliography and a chronology (up to 1990) before we even get to the encyclopedia proper, index and supplement (1990-1995). From Accolon of Gaul to Roger Zelazny and El Libro del Cabellero Zifar we are led through a bewildering array of Arthurian-inspired themes and obsessions, some very tenuous and others central to any consideration of our hero.
While largely dominated by North American contributors there is a broad field of interpretation, and in only a few ways is the scholarly material dated: this is mostly in the historical field where, for example, the Sarmatian and Riothamus origin theories are given approval (by being accorded serious discussion) despite the flaws inherent in any speculative reconstruction of Arthurian identity and chronology. That said, these are small niggles given the value of this compendium of Arthuriana; it has a pride of place on my shelves, and I heartily recommend it to any enthusiast.
But if a new edition of The New Arthurian Encyclopedia is ever planned, what would they call it?
Helga Hofmann Wild Animals of Britain & Europe
translated by Martin Walters
Collins Nature Guide, HarperCollins 1995
As we drove down a country road yesterday morning a familiar form crossed in front of us: a polecat. We recognised it by its colouring, the distinctive dark mask over its face, and by its size. What we weren’t familiar with was its gait, because the only previous time we’d seen one was after our field had recently been mowed for hay, and by then the poor creature was quite dead. The cat appeared interested in it, mainly because of the strong scent it had left behind — the second element of its Latin name Mustela putorius means ‘smelly’. We left it for other carnivores to feast on or for a passing buzzard to carry away. To identify it was just a matter of moments Continue reading “Born to be wild”→
James MacKillop Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Oxford University Press 1998
The tag “Celtic” is one of those catch-all but often meaningless labels that are a lazy shorthand for anything mystical, fey or even implicitly racial. Too often it is used by those profoundly unaware of its scholarly origins in linguistics or cultural history, so it is refreshing to have this Dictionary written by a specialist displaying his undoubted expertise in linguistics, literature, archaeology, history and comparative religion. Continue reading “Celts, cults and comprehensiveness”→
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.