Category Archives: Books we love

Philosophy made simple

Today’s blog is from Peter Clapp, who interned for us a few weeks ago. Peter studied Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University and then spent a few years acting, mainly in the back rooms of pubs but occasionally in exciting places like New York. Having realised the life of an actor probably wasn’t quite for him, he’s now hoping to pursue a career in another of his passions, children’s publishing. A career move his one year old brother is particularly excited about.

When people think of philosophy, they tend to think of dry, dense tomes that are full of more semicolons than sense. The sorts of books that are no doubt very important, that influenced society in some indefinably crucial way, but, y’know, you wouldn’t actually want to read them. And in many ways those people are right.

Philosophy can be dense. It can be pretentious, and reading it can often feel like unpicking a knot with the lights turned off. But at its heart philosophy is none of those things. It’s not about overly complex language; it’s about incredibly powerful ideas that make you see the world in a completely different way. The trouble is, though the ideas may actually be quite simple, they’re really very hard to express.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m waffling on about philosophy on Hot Key’s blog. Well it’s because I think YA and children’s fiction can be a brilliant way of exploring these big, philosophical ideas.

Take Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – an obvious example I know, but also a good one – over the course of the trilogy Pullman precisely questions the role and influence of religion. Now, a lot of people might say that’s all well and good, but you could explore those ideas much better by reading Paradise Lost and Richard Dawkins. But I’d argue they don’t offer an inherently better way, just a different one. All too often I think we’re guilty of thinking that ideas can only be weighty if they’re also heavy. Whereas in reality a fast-paced, gripping narrative can be just as good at exploring big ideas as something that’s considered more high brow.

Anyone who isn’t convinced should read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s a brilliant dystopian thriller set in a society where everyone has chosen to repress their memories and limit their experiences in order to live a life free from pain. Unfortunately, it also means they’re pretty incapable of dealing with threats so they elect one person to receive the memories and experiences they lack and act as a leader.

The novel follows 12 year old Jonas as takes on this role and in the process finds his coddled life blown apart. But what’s really fascinating is that Jonas doesn’t just get more knowledgeable, rather his fundamental experience of life begins to change. In one particularly powerful section he starts to see colours he’s never experienced before. Lowry seems to be suggesting that our minds aren’t just blank slates that the world imprints on; instead they’re more like filters that influence our experiences. More than this, if you change that filter in some way – by providing new fundamental knowledge – then your basic experience of the world can change too. And, as Kant will happily tell you, that’s a deeply philosophical idea.

Now, if that last paragraph has left you scratching your head, then in a funny kind of way I think I’ve sort of proven my point. Expressing these ideas in an article or blog is hard and sometimes it’s far more effective to express them in a story. In my opinion YA and children’s literature does that brilliantly. It can take these big, bold ideas and create a story that is illuminating, unpretentious, gripping and fun. It proves the point that big ideas aren’t just for dusty old men in ivory towers – they’re for everyone.

Can you think of other examples of this in YA books published today? Or do you remember having any philosophical epiphanies after reading a particular title when you were growing up?

Bank Holiday Reading

Happy May 6th Bank Holiday! We hope you are enjoying the weather (please no rain!), having a delicious meal, spending time with your favourite people, and finding time to enjoy a good book. Even though most of us spend the majority of our reading time pouring over our own books, we do manage, especially on these holiday weekends, to fit in a few titles outside our list. So, here’s what we’re reading this weekend:

Amy: I’m so close to finishing THE ACCURSED by Joyce Carol Oates, which I feel like has taken my brain and twisted it into an origami crane (or more appropriately, an origami vampire bat). It’s a completely bizarre and beautifully written story set in the early 20th century about a curse which descends upon the inhabitants of Princeton, New Jersey. Just read what Stephen King had to say about it. If I manage to finish that, I’ll move onto either LET’S EXPLORE DIABETES WITH OWLS by David Sedaris, or WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK by Nathan Englander. Decisions, decisions!

Sarah O: I’m reading a book called A HORA DA ESTRELA by Clarice Lispector. I’m reading it with my Portuguese teacher. In Portuguese! It’s the story of a young woman from the north east of Brasil who moves to Rio de Janeiro  for work and things dont go well for her. It was Clarice’s last published work, published posthumously, and exhibits all her courageous and innovative use of language and attitude to structure. Though she is one of Brazil’s greatest writers she is published a bit too little outside the country. Maybe that will change.

Emily: For me it is BE AWESOME – Hadley Freeman’s alternative to HOW TO BE A WOMAN by Caitlin Moran.

Sarah B: I am reading, in chunks, (when I have time –  which I hope to be this bank hol!) – LITERARY ROGUES: A SCANDALOUS HISTORY OF WAYWARD AUTHORS which I picked up in New York. It’s the perfect read for a) a person in publishing and b) someone who lives with an author – just to watch out for the warning signs of bad behaviour! :) Each chapter is on a different author, period and their vices and normally, their tragic ends!

Cait: BAD PHARMA by Ben Goldacre – terrifying so far, I’m desperate to finish over the weekend!!

Naomi: THE CRANE WIFE by Patrick Ness. As a huge fan of Patrick Ness (although come on, who isn’t?! Even my severely dyslexic boyfriend who has only ever read the Harry Potter books and several Guns N’ Roses themed  autobiographies loved the CHAOS WALKING series!) as well as Japanese folklore, I was very excited to hear that he was releasing a new book for adults, based on a traditional Japanese fairytale. As I already know how the original story goes, I am pretty certain there will be no happy endings here, but it still looks like an amazing read and one I can’t wait to sink my teeth into. Also the cover is gorgeous! And I can (probably) exclusively reveal that the double-matte finish FEELS LIKE VELVET! (Not that I know this from repeatedly rubbing it on my face, of course.)

Sara OC: I’m reading THE END OF BIG by Nicco Mele on my Kobo app. Nicco is a friend of mine from high school and basically revolutionised the way presidential campaigns are run. He pioneered the grassroots social media fundraising as webmaster for Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign.

Emma: THE GREAT GATSBY – because it is a modern classic I have never read. And because the film is coming and I HATE seeing the film before I have read the book. Also WONDER – the story of a boy with severe facial disfigurement. I am reading this with my 9 year old. He is loving it and so am I.

Jan: Right now I’m plowing through my haul from the Stockholm International Comics Festival that I attended to last weekend. Most of all I’m looking forward to reading STORIES FROM ENGELFORS. It’s an interlude graphic novel, published between book two and three in the YA trilogy “The Circle” by Sara Bergmark Elfgren and Mats Strandberg. It’s been making it’s way around the world for the past few years and since the co-writers and artists Kim W Andersson  (who also designed the trilogy covers), Lina Neidestam and Karl Johnsson are friends of mine I’m hoping this graphic novel gets the same treatment!

Another two beautiful finds that I’ll be ogling are Sigbjørn Lilleeng’s  GENERATOR which looks a bit Akira inspired, with a Paul Pope treatment – Norwegians really know their stuff when it comes to comics! So do Germans, and even though I won’t get as much of DAS INFERNO by Michael Meier it’s looking amazing!

Becca: Over the bank holiday  weekend I am reading THE LAST GIRLFRIEND ON EARTH by Simon Rich. My little sister sent it to me in the post because she loved it so much, and I definitely trust her judgement. So far so good, it’s a collection of quirky, surreal and hilarious short stories and sketches about love. My favourite so far involves an over-amorous goat and the grisly troll that ‘got away’. I’m excited to see where this goes….

Georgia: I’m reading THE LOST ART OF KEEPING SECRETS by Eva Rice – Emily’s copy via Becca! I’d never have picked this book up as it has the most dreary pastel cover and looks like godawful chick lit, but it’s a delight – a kind of pastiche of a 50s novel, full of wonderfully eccentric characters, fabulous period detail, written with great wit and warmth but also real poignancy. Utterly delicious and unputdownable!

What are you reading today? Tell us below!

Throwing Paper Planes…an ode to a friendship

As I’m sure you won’t have failed to notice – Journalist, documentary maker and TV presenter Dawn O’Porter has written her first YA novel, which officially came out yesterday.

Paper Aeroplanes

There is so much online chatter about this book due to Dawn’s career so far, and this has been amazing for us as a new(ish) publisher to see. Sure, it’s felt pretty glamorous for us to be listening to Dawn talk on the radio, or TV, or in magazines about a book we publish.

But, all this aside, besides all the hype and chatter, we have a book. And a stunning book at that. A story, of a friendship. If you’ve ever been a teenage girl – and I have – you will remember how genuinely crap you can feel sometimes, how all over the place your emotions are, how friendships can feel so fragile and how those first “loves” take over your life. When I first read Dawn’s novel, I went on a massive nostalgia trip – all those feelings I’d put away came rushing back. I tell you now – I’d never want to be a teenager again!

When we were thinking about Paper Aeroplanes, and how to get across those teenage feelings, we thought of music. How many times did I close the door to my bedroom and play music so loud to wallow in teen angst? I can only imagine what my parents thought to me singing at the top of my voice to Whitney Houston over and over again. *hangs head* So, when we discovered The Bookshop Band, and heard their songs about books, we thought – what better thing? We commissioned an Ode to a Friendship, for Renee and Flo, and when I listen to this, it takes me back to my teenage years. And it made Dawn WEEP. (Honest).

So – here is the WORLD PREMIERE, of Throwing Paper Planes, by the very, very talented Bookshop Band – we hope you enjoy it…and go on, wallow a little.

Dress your mummy like a mummy…and win!

Next week, THE TROUBLE WITH MUMMIES by  Fleur Hitchcock will be released into the hands of excited kids everywhere. In case you haven’t heard about this book yet, here’s the summary:

Sam comes home one day to find his family turning a little bit loopy – his mum is redecorating using hieroglyphics and his dad is building a pyramid in the back garden. He hopes it’s just a weird new fashion… but then the strangeness starts to spread. With the help of his friends Ursula, Henry and Lucy the Goat, Sam must save his town from rampaging Roman rugby players, hairdressers turned cavewomen, and a teacher who used to be a ‘basket of kittens’ but now wants to sacrifice the Year Ones to the Aztec sun god. As history invades Sam’s world, will he be able to keep the Greeks away from the Egyptians and discover the cause of the Mummy madness?


Hilarious, right? So to celebrate the release of this book, we are running an equally hilarious contest. We are challenging young UK citizens to dress their mummies (or willing family members) up like ancient Egyptian mummies! Prizes will be awarded for Best Effort, Most Creative Mummy, Cutest Mummy, and Best Overall Mummy. All winners will receive signed copies of THE TROUBLE WITH MUMMIES. Best Overall Mummy winner will take home a HUGE prize pack including a £25 voucher for the “mummy” and ancient Egyptian-themed goodies from The British Museum. See details below, and for full T’s and C’s, visit click here.

Dress Your Mummy Like A Mummy

On First Love…

Do you remember your first love? I do. His name was Geoff – I was 12 years old and about a foot taller than him. But obviously that didn’t bother me at all because we were meant to be together…despite the height difference.

I’m thinking about first love as Dawn O’Porter’s novel Paper Aeroplanes comes out next week and we are EXCITED, as you can tell. A few weeks ago we had a chat with Dawn in front of the camera about various nostalgia moments from her own teen school years. And here’s the first one…On first love…

We’ll share more of the videos with you over the course of the week – coming soon…friends, frenemies, school, periods and the all important question of 90s food! Stay tuned for more and watch our twitter stream for the launch of Dawn’s new website…

Anyone brave enough to share their stories of first love?

Visiting other worlds to remember our own

Did you know that it’s Earth Day today? We hope you’re celebrating by doing simple things — remembering to turn off lights, unplugging “vampire” appliances when not in use, recycling more, wasting less, and of course…reading! Reading is actually a great way to save the planet, because the right book can completely change the way you think about the world. And after all, isn’t saving the planet really dependent on our ability to change the way we operate? So to get you started, here are a few recommended books for Earth Day:


The Cloud Hunters live in a world that is both familiar and very, very different to our own. They travel through the sky in boats, fighting flying whales and fearsome pirates so far, so different. At the heart of Alex Shearer’s story however is a lack of water. Something our world is becoming increasingly familiar with. Water is a commodity like gold and grain – and it’s only when it’s gone that you really understand how precious it is.

BOONIE Paperback

BOONIE takes you to a desert world, where the earth has been parched by an unyielding sun and water is society’s most precious resource. The desperate search for water has led to terrible abuses of power, and it is up to two brave children, JD and Aqua, to fight for the city’s childrens’ freedom.

THE LORAX is a classic tale of what goes wrong when we stop respecting our natural resources. You can even purchase it in a special recycled paper edition!

In THE GREAT PAPER CAPER, when trees start mysteriously disappearing from the forest, the forest creatures begin their search for answers. Could the abundance of paper aeroplanes littered about have something to do with this tragedy?

As the polar ice caps melt, polar bear sets off to look for a new place to live in THE JOURNEY HOME. Follow him as he meets a few other endangered species along the way…

This beautiful pop-up published by the Tate artfully illustrates the effects of deforestation.

Can you think of others? Add them to the list by posting them in the comments below. And let us know how you are celebrating Earth Day!

Girl meets Boy meets Books: Part 2

The great book swap continues! You might remember that as a January resolution the ‘boy’ and I decided to challenge each other with a book to broaden the mind. One book each month, something that the other one would never dream of picking up but that would give them a new perspective on great literature. Last time we got as far as debating language vs plot and cleverness vs intellect… recent events have proved that great works split opinion, and there are some things we will never agree on!


Getting stuck in…

 February (see here for our reasons behind the chosen titles)


I gave him WONDER by R.J. Palacio

He said –
While the message of the book is commendable and important, I feel that the author’s voice drowns out the child characters’ voices because she feels she has an important lesson for readers – but tells it in a manner which is purposefully childish. It came across as trite, preachy and patronising as a result. I hate to be a reviewer who negatively reviews a book which is so obviously not aimed at him, but I do feel that there is children’s literature out there which conveys a similar message but with a story and characters complex enough to leave more of a lasting impression. And without the infuriatingly-schmaltzy Hollywood ending. While it is a decent story relatively well told, I got the impression it’s the kind of story adults think children should be reading to turn them into sensible and sensitive people, rather than what children really want to read.

He gave me FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

I said –
I absolutely loved this. It felt like reading THE HANDMAID’S TALE all over again, a stark warning about abandoning things which are crucial to humanity in favour of ‘progress’. The burning of books has been a symbol for centuries of the danger of knowledge, and the restriction of freedom. From the burning of Ashurbanipal in 612 BC, to the Nazi book burning campaign in 1933 where over 25,000 texts were destroyed, to set alight a book symbolises far more than flame on paper. Even today the burning of books is a regular occurrence. Whether that’s the Qu’ran in Florida or stacks of Harry Potter books, it is a statement of aggression, and violence that somehow transgresses a physical violation. Ray Bradbury’s story is one that will stay with me, his stark prose and vivid characters were excellent. And despite the dystopian world I thought he betrayed a sense of hope in Montag’s innate need for literature; for poetry, prose, history and society  devoured from paper. It made me wonder what this meant for eBooks – is there a danger that the transience of the digital word betrays the perpetuity of paper?



I gave him KIT’S WILDERNESS by David Almond
The reaction I got to WONDER made me certain that my next move had to be a good one. I wanted to prove that children’s literature can be hugely powerful, and scary, moving, and dangerous. The sense of uneasiness that Almond regularly creates in his writing has stayed with me beyond plot points and character details and I knew that it was a good book for a boy who loves powerful prose and sparse writing.

He said –
Read any work by David Almond and you immediately get a sense of someone who understands the complexity of young readers’ minds, what inspires them, what excites them and the type of story they can get lost in. Kit’s Wilderness is a perfect example. It deals with themes like friendship, belonging, rejection, redemption, and all with a subtlety of touch which gets under the skin and remains with you long after reading. There is nothing patronising in his style – he treats readers with respect and urges them to make up their own minds about complex issues like the relationship between Kit and Askew, the meaning of the Death game, the presence of ghosts. While SKELLIG is David Almond’s most famous novel, I feel that KIT’S WILDERNESS is the superior novel in many respects, and showcases an author at the height of his powers, providing a thrilling, utterly absorbing ride for his audience.

He gave me Woody Allen’s Complete Prose
I chose Woody Allen’s Collected Prose because I consider it to be among the best comic prose ever written. It stands alongside Wodehouse, Thurber and Perelman in its consistency of laughs, but with a range of stories and surreal edge which is for me superior to any of those. It is the ultimate ‘dip-in-and-out’ book, with almost every line providing a twist, a turn of phrase, a witty reversal, a master class in joke writing and one liners. Even the most worn stories in my copy, like The Kugelmass Episode and Death Knocks, still surprise me and make me laugh out loud. It is, without doubt, my desert island book.

I said –
Errr… I know that Woody Allen is your hero. I get that he is a comedy genius, and I can see the brilliance at work. But I just didn’t get it. Maybe I should have picked out stories rather than starting at the beginning and working my way through. I was never compelled to pick it up and abandon eating and sleeping to get to the end. I enjoyed it in a distant and slightly removed way, I would like to read more but I think that it will be the kind of book that I can pick up and put down easily, maybe with a few days or weeks in between. But not every book has to be like a blindfold over my consciousness – I’m never going to ‘wake up’ from Woody Allen and realise that I’ve been dribbling into my muesli for 3 hours.

Next Month…..


He’s giving me THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde
This was the first of Oscar Wilde’s works I ever came across and it hooked me from the first chapter on. His prose contains a musicality that transcends words on a page in a way I’ve never encountered anywhere else. Although the story of Dorian Gray is well known even by those who haven’t read it, the joy of Wilde’s wit makes it worth reading, again and again. I think you’ll get lost in the book and completely fall in love with the author.

I’m giving him WHEN HITLER STOLE PINK RABBIT by Judith Kerr
This book is dog eared and well loved. It has my name (and age – 6) printed neatly in the corner. It was my book that I carried around with me, just looking at the cover and thinking that it was real, that it actually happened. That her daddy was just like my daddy, and it could have been me who had to disappear from my home and my friends. Judith Kerr’s book was my gateway to Anne Frank, to Alexander Solzhenitsyn and to Primo Levi. It was, and remains my favourite book. I know you will love it, and I know you will understand how important it is.

Are there any books that you are desperately trying to get other people to read? Which ones are you avoiding? Are there any books that have shaped how you read today? Any thoughts, let us know!