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Summer Reading Suggestions

It’s that time of year – a month off for MinervaReads and a sumptuous summer booklist for readers.

a fun abcoddbods

For the youngest, my top recommends include A Fun ABC by Sade Fadipe and Shedrach Ayalomeh, a rhyming ABC book set in Africa. With full colour, exquisitely detailed pictures on each page showing children what life is like in Africa as Adinah goes on an adventure during her school break to visit her grandfather. Not only showing the ABC, but also filled with delightful visual puzzles, such as how many objects beginning with the same letter are hidden within each picture – T is for table but also for tambourine, tomatoes, torch and teapot. An infectiously bouncy and lively book, bursting with colour and exuberance.

Equally colourful and with rhyming text and an alphabet theme, is OddBods by Steven Butler and illustrated by Jarvis. Weird and wonderful children and personalities laid out on each page, explaining why everyone has their own quirks and strange habits. Hugely funny, and embracing individuality.

great aaa ooosnappenpoop

Be prepared to join in wholeheartedly with The Great Aaa-Ooo by Jonny Lambent, a picture book filled with noise and laughter, as the animals try to work out who is making the great aaa-ooo noise in the woods. Lambent’s wonderful collage-style layering with different textures for each animal brings to mind his first picture book, Little Why, yet this goes one better in its animal expression, body language, and plotline. The text begs to be read aloud, the fears of the animals are assuaged, and there’s a surprise ending too.

There’s No Such Thing as a Snappenpoop by Jeanne Willis and Matt Saunders explores sibling relationships, especially during summer days in the garden. Fabulously written, with real feeling, and both brothers masterfully depicted by Saunders – reminiscent of the boys from On Sudden Hill. This is more playful though, both in picture and words, as meanies get their comeuppance.

lucinda belindanara and the island

Jeanne Willis also gives Lucinda Belinda Melinda McCool, illustrated by Tony Ross what she deserves in this sparky picture book that extends all the way up the age range. With a message that looks aren’t everything; but it’s what’s inside that counts, ironically the book portrays the moral with such panache and style that it’s lucky the message in the book lives up to its looks. A brilliant picture book that manages to be as cool as a pop star.

For something altogether gentler and quieter, try Nara and the Island by Dan Ungureanu. Muted pastel colours, a thoughtful story of friendship and imagination, exploration and discovery – it feels contemporary and old-fashioned synonymously. Beautiful depictions of islands in the sea make this a joyful and peaceful summer read.

puglycaptain pugcaptain firebeard

Newly independent readers will be well rewarded in their reading with Pugly Bakes a Cake by Pamela Butchart, a hilariously funny tale about a Pug who wants to bake a cake, yet gets himself stuck in the cat flap instead. An array of comedy characters, slapstick in abundance and illustrations by Gemma Correll, everyone will fall about laughing with this great story. Further adventures of pugs in Captain Pug by Laura James, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans, with a slightly more sophisticated pug owner, and a very loveable pug, who can’t help getting into scrapes. Fully illustrated, funny and rewarding. More seafaring in Captain Firebeard’s School for Pirates by Chae Strathie, illustrated by Anna Chernyshova, this is a book that won’t get lost on the beach – it’s luminous orange – throughout! It’s Tommy’s first term on board the Rusty Barnacle learning to be a pirate – tests galore for the young piratey ‘uns, and an author who’s gone mad with the seafaring metaphors.

jim reaper 2max crumblypoppys place

Readers age 8 and over may enjoy the second in the Jim Reaper series, Saving Granny Maggot by Rachel Delahaye, illustrated by Jamie Littler in which Jim has accepted that his Dad is the Grim Reaper, but is not quite fully okay with him killing his best friend’s grandmother. More laughs, more subversiveness. Watch out for Jamie Littler’s wonderful illustration of Granny Maggot dancing. Dork Diaries fans may be interested to hear that author Rachel Renee Russell has produced a new series about a boy called Max Crumbly entering middle school. Max loves comics and in the first in the series, The Misadventures of Max Crumbly, Locker Hero, he has to face school thug, Doug Thurston. Told in first person, with numerous illustrations, lined text pages and comic strips, this is easy summertime reading ‘a la Wimpy Kid‘ for those who may be reluctant. And for animal lovers, Poppy’s Place by Katrina Charman is a delightfully gentle feel-good series about the Palmer family who turn their home into a cat sanctuary and café. Friendship, family and beautiful illustrations by Lucy Truman – the second book in the series has just been published.

whispers of wilderwoodapprentice witchgym teacher alien

A host of meaty middle grade titles (for 9-13 years) land this summer, and are perfect for complete immersion in the garden, on the sofa while it rains, or if you’re lucky, next to a swimming pool. The Whispers of Wilderwood Hall by Karen McCrombie sweeps the reader into a Downton Abbey-esque past, with a contemporary heroine who time travels and yet retains a precise sense of self – she’s likeable, flawed and intensely real. A contemporary novel that shows what family and friendship are all about. Another hugely likeable character is Arianwyn in The Apprentice Witch by James Nicols, who demonstrates supreme grit and determination with huge warmth and charm. Arianwyn is a trainee witch, who rises from failure to triumph in a book that lifts the spirit and teaches heart.

My Gym Teacher is an Alien Overlord by David Solomons follows the success of My Brother is a Superhero, and continues in the same vein with Luke’s resentment at his brother’s superhero status, incorporating the same wit as before, references to comics and superheroes, and with gadgets and evilness. It’s funny and pacey – but would be best read as a sequel rather than a standalone. See also my books of the week, The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison, and Through the Mirror Door by Sarah Baker. Also for this age group, and great summer reads.

five hundred milesriver of inkjessica ghost

For older readers, I highly recommend short and yet compelling Five Hundred Miles by the hugely talented Kevin Brooks – darkness oozes from his novels like treacle from a jar. His first full length YA novel since The Bunker Diary comes out in the autumn – this is a good warm up. River of Ink by Helen Dennis will keep the reader gripped and mystified throughout. It features a wonderfully enigmatic protagonist, a sassy girl and her deaf brother, and stays in the memory long after reading. Not only that, but the pages are interspersed with intriguing images, which also keep the reader guessing. Book two in the series has just been published, and it’ll be in my suitcase – book three is on pre-order. Meanwhile, Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norris is released in paperback and is one of the most perfect novels I have read – easy to read, sharp, interesting characters, a mystery with perfectly crafted cliff-hanger ‘what happens next’ sentences at the end of almost every chapter – this is an emotionally astute, well-told, loving story with exceptional characters and one you’d be mad to pass on. Definitely the pick of the summer.

historium activityprofessor astro activitypierre maze colouring

For those who want something more hands-on, Historium Activity Book by Richard Wilkinson and Jo Nelson takes the reader inside the museum to recreate ancient artworks, spot differences, answer artefact questions and explore ancient mazes. For pure history buffs with a creative bent. Professor Astro Cat’s Intergalactic Activity Book by Zelda Turner and Ben Newman includes experiments, codes, quizzes, crafts and more, all related to the science of space. Learn and play at the same time, this will keep them busy all summer. It looks good, feels good and teaches well. And lastly for pure fun, try Pierre the Maze Detective and the Great Colouring Adventure by Hiro Kamigaki and IC4Design. Like a Where’s Wally to colour in with puzzles to solve – finding objects, navigating mazes. Enormous fun, hours of entertainment (answers at the back to avoid frustration).

Book of the Week

The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

the other alice

So many children’s books, especially for this age group, talk about a love for reading. They might feature a character whose nose is permanently in a book, a library that bestows secrets, a saviour from bullying whose emotional empathy has been garnered from reading. Preaching to the converted perhaps – a bullet-proof way to draw in the reader, a person who, by the very fact that they are reading the book, will immediately feel resonance with the mention of bookishness within the story.

This book is different though. This is clever. Michelle Harrison doesn’t just weave a love for reading into her book. This novel is very much all about the writing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you read the book carefully, embedded within it is a story-writing manual.

Midge has an older sister Alice. One who writes stories. But one day Alice goes missing, and when Midge runs into a lookalike who is adamant she isn’t Alice, and then he runs into a talking cat, Midge realises that the characters in Alice’s most recent story have come to life. Midge needs to figure out why Alice is missing, why the characters are alive, and how to end the story Alice has left unfinished, without them all succumbing to the wickedness of the intensely dark and disturbed villain of the piece.

In essence this is a good old-fashioned classic adventure story. Midge must find his missing sister, and together with his new accomplices Gypsy and Piper, must solve riddles to find Alice, as well as avoiding the villain who wishes to get to Alice first. The reader can also have a stab at solving the riddles, which are italicised in the text. Like Dorothy in Oz, who navigates through a landscape where ‘characters’ such as the Tin Man come to life, or Pinocchio, the toy who comes to life, this is a familiar landscape. And yet Harrison lifts it to greater heights – this is a story for older readers with darkness and depth.

And hidden (in plain sight) in the story are markers that point to a more complex novel. The story Alice has been writing is planted in pieces within the general narrative, so that the backstory of the characters is highlighted, and also the vague intent that Alice had for them, illuminating everything for the reader, but not necessarily for the characters. The real author, Michelle Harrison, also leads the reader on a dance through fairy stories and allusions to other tales, not only in calling her character Alice, with Midge seeing her through a looking glass, but in the chapter headings – Gingerbread House, Trail of Breadcrumbs, Once Upon a Time, and in the names of her characters – Piper plays hypnotising music on his flute just like The Pied Piper. Harrison also drops in allusions within the text itself:

“Terror stuck in my throat like a poisoned apple.”

There are numerous extra storytelling tropes thrown into the mix – from an old lady sorcerer who captures a voice (The Little Mermaid) to a fire, mistaken identities, an errant father, a mother who conveniently takes herself away for the duration, and of course, as I mentioned, loving placements of libraries and bookshops.

However, this being Michelle Harrison, there is also a spooky, shivery feel to the book. From the opening scene at the start, Alice’s book within a book, to the name of the town in which Midge lives, Fiddler’s Hollow, to curses, as well as the annual ritual of the Summoning at Fiddler’s Hollow (with its tradition of making a doll likeness of someone and then burning them in a huge pyre), which sounds like something out of Salem. Watchers from shadows, and the creepiest villain with charred hands, gave this reader a haunting feeling, and will certainly do so for youngsters too.

But as aforementioned, it’s the guide to storytelling that’s well and truly threaded throughout the story. Chapter headings such as Writers’ Block are just one example. Midge often relates things his older sister has told him to the fictional characters whom he befriends:

“Alice says stories never start at the beginning. They start when something is about to happen.”

Midge also thinks he knows more about the characters because he can read their history in Alice’s notes, but in actuality, characters only come alive in any book when they are realistic. Characters have to have aims, goals, wants because that’s what real people have. We are all protagonists of our own stories, weaving our own webs of lies and fabrications, being true only to ourselves, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes our stories run away from us, in the same way that authors report their characters can run away from their control.

“Alice often says her characters take over when she’s writing. Doing their own thing. Like the story is writing itself and the characters take control.” Midge explains. This points to the crux of the story within the story here – how much influence is Alice going to have over her characters, or whether the characters are going to steer the story forwards without her. It’s clever and complex, and pushes the reader to think.

What’s real in our own lives, which stories have we fabricated? We’re all characters of our own imagining. Alice projects herself onto her main character Gypsy – the best parts of herself, a braver self with the ability to wear the clothes she wants to wear, to befriend a boy with striking similarity to a boy Alice fancies in real life (well, within Michelle Harrison’s story!).

“Her characters had always been real to her, but they were properly real now, and here. They spoke, they ate, they slept. If I cut them, they’d bleed.”

In the epilogue, Harrison explains how everything is a story – just told from a different point of view. She calls the epilogue ‘Ever After’.

Stepping back from the complexity of the story, there are messages about loyalty – about being true to yourself, and searching for a cohesion in life – be it your family network, or just the end of a story.

This is a masterful telling, which twists and turns and is beautiful in its scope. There’s also a talking cat who likes tea. The only caveat is the shapelessness of the young protagonist – our narrator Midge. He felt ill-defined to me, vague almost, and at times I forgot his gender (it’s told in the first person) – but maybe that too was a masterful stroke. Perhaps our own young selves are shaped by events that are happening to us, perhaps he’s not meant to be fully formed, but a vessel through which the story is told.

Either way, I felt that Michelle Harrison wrote a book in which “there was no option to stop reading, or to put the story down.” A cracking adventure story with added depth.

 

Please note that this review was written after reading a proof copy of the book. The publisher recommends this as a 9+ years read. Personally I would raise that to 11+. You can buy it here.