Minerva

Halloween Round Up

Writers and publishers love cultural events upon which they can hook a theme – be it glowing Christmas scenes or the approach of a new season – windy autumns, growth in spring. Halloween seems to intensify every year in the UK – a very large percentage of the autumn books I received had a ‘spooky or witchy element’ to them, and I don’t mean that the pages turned by themselves (although that would be useful). So, to help you through the ghosts and ghoulies, here are my spooky and also witchy-themed picks:


Witch for a Week by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Ashley King
Not unlike Sylvia Bishop’s stories, also illustrated by Ashley King, this latest from top children’s author Kaye Umansky is an absolutely charming story, which is ideal for newly independent readers. Elsie is recruited to house-sit for local witch Magenta Sharp for a week, and although promised a quiet easy week, has to contend with a host of quirky eccentric neighbours, a tower with personality, and a grumpy talking raven. Each character is well-defined, and Elsie herself is beautifully drawn as unflappable, book-loving, and kind.

The book contains some lovely touches, including hilarious customer service rules (Elsie has been schooled in retail), a love potion that goes awry, a book of instructions that seems to be blank, and a sassy witch whose business is mainly mail-order. Sumptuously modern, but with an old-fashioned fairy tale feel, this is one new witchy series which I’ll be recommending to all. Fun, memorable, touching and bubbly – a real hug of a book. Magic it here.


Spectre Collectors: Too Ghoul for School by Barry Hutchinson, illustrator Rob Biddulph
Some books just scream cinema. This highly visual first-in-a-series will delight comedy fans everywhere. Opening mid-action, Denzel is in the middle of maths homework when his home appears to be invaded at first by a poltergeist, and then by two figures with a gun. Before long, he too is recruited to be part of the ‘Spectre Collectors’, a kind of cross between Ghostbusters and Men in Black, an organisation in which children use magic and technology to rid the world of ‘spectres’.

With impeccable timing on jokes, sparkling top-class humorous dialogue between Denzel and his mates, and great variety of action scenes, this is a wonderful ghostly spoof. Beware a terrifying episode in the middle in which Denzel’s two fathers don’t remember him at all – as if his existence has been scrubbed from the world – but there are enough laughs and improbabilities to combat the darkness. For age 8-12 years. Spook it here.


Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson
Vampire Amelia wants to hang out with her pet pumpkin Squashy, but her parents insist she attends their Barbaric Ball. When Squashy is captured, Amelia must plan a daring rescue. This highly illustrated read for 7-9 year olds dazzles with superb illustrations, macabre puns, (including diePhones, scream teas and daymares), and is set in a grisly Nocturnia. But Amelia is a fun, endearing and captivating protagonist, and Anderson’s energy shines through with exuberance in both the prose and the illustrations. Much of the normal landscape has been inverted of course, with the characters sleeping by day and playing by night, as well as ‘cute’ things being feared, and gruesomeness celebrated. Join the vampires here.


Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Kathryn Ourst
I’m not convinced Amelia would love Vlad, but this reader certainly did. Another vampire adventure for 7-9 year olds, Vlad isn’t keen on being a vampire. He secretly reads a rather jolly boarding school book about normal children and decides that it would be nicer to live an Enid Blyton-esque existence. Anna Wilson’s trademark humour works a treat in this rather adorable little adventure, in which Vlad tries to balance his life between human school, in which they don’t realise he’s a vampire, and home life, in which he has to hide his new friends from his family.

Added to the plot are some wonderful little touches, such as his new friends telling Vlad that he needs to get his teeth fixed, to Vlad’s relationship with his very elderly grandfather, but mainly his growing friendship with Minxie. Ourst’s illustrations are a joy – very cartoonlike with gleeful vibrancy. The final picture of Minxie and Vlad laughing is enough to bring a smile to any youngster’s face. A thoroughly enjoyable vampire adventure story, sparkling with wit and warmth. Look out on the blog to see a guest contribution from author Anna Wilson next week, and you can show Vlad some pathos by buying your own copy here.


You Can’t Make Me Go to Witch School by Em Lynas, illustrated by Jamie Littler
A slightly longer adventure story from Nosy Crow publishers for the 7+ age group, which sees the advent of another little witch. Daisy Wart wants to be an actress, more particularly she wants to star as Shakespeare’s Bottom on the stage. But when her grandmother dumps her at Witch School, she struggles to escape, despite all her dramatics. This is a strange school, with cauldrons for beds, pupil-eating plants in the school garden, and the ghost of the former headmistress stalking the corridors – a step up from the sudden appearances of Miss Hardbroom in The Worst Witch.

There are highly original touches and a fixation with hats to distinguish this from other ‘witchy school’ books, and Daisy is a protagonist who definitely fulfils the role of leading lady, with her particular brand of speech and her innermost thoughts about the other characters. First in a series, this book sets up further adventures rather nicely, when Daisy, as I’m sure you’ve all guessed, decides that maybe acting isn’t the only thing she could be good at. Littler’s illustrations work their magic here too – bringing the whole ensemble to life. Join Witch School here.


School for Little Monsters by Michelle Robinson and Sarah Horne
I do sometimes wonder where Michelle Robinson finds the time to write so many picture books, but here’s another one that ticks all the boxes. The book follows two children – Bob and Blob – one a human, one a monster – due to start their first days at school. But sadly for them, some naughty monsters have swapped signs and Bob and Blob attend the wrong schools. Rhyming text pulls the reader through this great mash-up of ‘experience’ and ‘monster’ genres, as the reader finds out about their first days at school. The rules for monsters and humans are apparently a little different. Great fun, superbly funny, colourful illustrations, with lots of mayhem. As with all great picture books, the illustrations speak louder than the words. The message is that school is good, as long as you’re at the right one…Be a little monster here.


An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Aidan Onn and illustrated by Rob Hodgson
Actually, this should probably be at the top of the pile, as the book very cleverly introduces and explains the different types of monsters, from aliens to zombies. Each letter takes a different ‘magical’ being, with a full double spread committed to it. There are plenty of wacky, although somewhat simply conceived, illustrations in matt, muted colours, accompanied by a small paragraph of text, which is more playful than it is informative. Learn the alphabet here.


Pretty by Canizales
A message in a book, this witchy picture book contribution to Halloween and beyond, is a story about a witch with a date, who wants to look her best. The creatures she meets on route give her hints as to how to better her appearance, but by the end of course, her date is disappointed with her new looks. Rather like wearing a little too much make up. The message is obvious – be yourself, but there’s also a rather dark twist at the end. The witch is brilliantly depicted – simplistic and rather lovingly drawn – despite her perceived failings, from hooked nose to pointy chin. Nice touches include her choice of outfits! Be pretty here. Happy Halloween!

Watch out too for my extract from Scarecrow by Danny Weston coming soon – for an ideal first horror book for your 11 year old (and up!)

Eloise Undercover – WW2 and France: A Guest Blog by Sarah Baker

Sarah Baker’s first novel, Through the Mirror Door, is an historical novel with a time-travelling touch. There’s nothing supernatural about her latest book, Eloise Undercover, a historical novel documenting a girl’s assistance to the French resistance during the Second World War. Cleverly, Baker has set her novel in the same area of France as her first, using the same house, Maison de Noyer, as a focal point. This time, though, it is the Nazis who are occupying the space. With a couple of smartly dropped hints to her first novel, this latest is a sensitive and plot-twisting drama following those who were brave enough to stand up to the foreign invaders who persecuted minority groups. With a courageous heroine, luscious descriptions of baking, and a clever use of lessons learned from reading mystery stories, this is a wise and tender read. Here, Sarah Baker explains how it came about.

Eloise Undercover is set in France during WW2. Eloise lives a short bicycle ride away from Maison de Noyer, the house that appears in Through the Mirror Door. The book is a prequel, of sorts, and there are a number of reasons why I decided to set it during the Second World War.

Both my grandfathers and my great-uncle fought in WW2 (Major, Lieutenant Colonel and a Spitfire pilot). My great uncle would tell me stories, which I’d include in school projects, my favourite being the one where he was shot down, escaped from the Germans, was hidden by the French Resistance and then credited with liberating an entire town. Other tales I’d learn later, about Grandfather H wading ashore on D-Day carrying not a weapon, but a violin. His task was to get all the landing craft back to Southampton as fast as possible to bring in the next wave of soldiers. He was due to play a concert that evening, so to ensure he’d make it back, he took his violin to Normandy. Grandfather W, however, couldn’t bear to talk about it, so we didn’t. That led me to read everything I could, to understand why.

War stories are important and the Second World War is a period of history that’s close enough to feel real. It wasn’t that long ago (relatively speaking) and many of us had or have a family member that got caught up. We have excellent records of it, even films and photographs, as well as personal accounts. I think the scale, the magnitude of what happened, the horror, the bravery and the sheer human experience of it all draws us as readers and writers. We remind ourselves, and each other, how important it is not to forget.

It was really important for me to get the research right. I read a lot of middle grade and adult books, either set or written during WW2 (I’ll be sharing my bibliography very soon). I also did a lot of internet research. I work visually so I create Pinterest boards for each book to help me ‘see’ the characters and place settings. It’s really handy to be able to check the correct uniforms, weapons, vehicles and boats used too. I spent quality time at the Imperial War Museum in London and I asked my Dad a lot of questions (he’s a bit of an unofficial WW2 expert). My editor, Melissa, helped too. Any mistakes are mine.

But although Eloise Undercover is set during the war, it’s not simply a war story. It’s a tale of bravery and friendship and how far we’ll go for the people we love. I think, in the end, that’s what drew me to this period of history, a time of such fear, uncertainty and upheaval. I‘m thrilled to share Eloise’s adventures and a little more of Maison de Noyer with readers today.

ELOISE UNDERCOVER by Sarah Baker, out now in paperback (£6.99, Catnip). You can buy it here

 

 

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris


This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.

 

Books in Books for Libraries Week

For #librariesweek, a few books about books. Because we are living in a time of library cuts, librarian redundancies, and struggling independent booksellers, children’s authors are doing more and more to celebrate not only their nostalgia for the old days of libraries, but also a burgeoning belief that they must fight to uphold every child’s right to library access in the here and now.


Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp

This is a reassuring book for those readers who haven’t quite grasped the fundamentals yet, or who are struggling with their confidence. Madeline does not like to read, especially out loud, for fear of humiliation and ridicule, but she really wants to earn a star at school rather than just a ‘keep trying’ sticker. She does have a great role model in her mother, who takes her to the library, and keeps her supplied with an abundant pile of books. When the librarian suggests that Madeline read out loud to a dog, rather than a human, Madeline begins to see the merit in trying, and before long her reading abilities have caught up with her ambition.

Inspired by real-life programmes of incentivising children to read with ‘Read-to-Dogs’ sessions in order to build readers’ confidence, this is a worthy and also admirable little read.

The book deserves a mention, not only for the quality of the storytelling, but also for the clear, well-spaced text against a cream-tinted background, which provides an ease on the eye for emerging readers. The illustrations are fitting – soft, expressive, and with a winsome collection of scenes from Madeline’s life – from riding her bike, to struggling over her books, to swinging in the garden, and staring out the window, all with an ever-present favourite soft toy. It creates a rounded picture of Madeline, perfect for empathy. The dogs are all cute and fluffy, or sleek and loyal, and delighted my listeners with the several different breeds depicted, and the dogs’ loving, attentive eyes. You can buy it here.


Franklin’s Flying Bookshop by Jen Campbell, illustrated by Kate Harnett

Jen Campbell takes her bookish book one step further, with a dragon protagonist who loves to read aloud. Perhaps he needs a dog, for this dragon can find no one to read to (the people he encounters run away in fear). Then he meets an inquisitive book-loving girl called Luna, who isn’t afraid because she has read about dragons in books, and so they come up with a plan to enable the sharing of books as widely as possible – a flying bookshop on top of a dragon.

If the concept sounds a little strange, it is – but it fits with the quirky whimsy of this book, which uses the bulk of its prose to extort the virtues of reading (expanding knowledge and extending imagination) by creating a higgledy piggedly mix of what the dragon and the girl bump into within the books in their reading sessions, from roller skating and King Arthur to kung fu and pirates, carol singing and anteaters.

This is quite literally drawn out in Katie Harnett’s illustrations of ant-eaters juggling, kungfu bats and mice moving furniture. The illustrations feel dreamy and timeless, with pencil colouring textures and shading and painstaking patterning – particularly the horseshoes on the dragon’s green skin.

The book speaks to unusual friendships, accepting others who may have only kind intentions despite threatening appearances, and the power of books. You can purchase it here.


Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers

This Luna is more than just a girl who loves the library. She has a special reason for loving the library, and it’s because her Dad waits for her there, and together they explore the books. Although not explicitly stated, Luna’s mother and father are separated and so this is the time she spends with her father. In a story within the story, (a physical inset), a not-so-hidden metaphor for Luna’s family situation, the enduring love for a child is explored using trolls and mermaids, despite the splitting of the family unit.

So, of course this is a book about dealing with family breakup, and yet it will appeal to all, for its illustrations are warm, affectionate, colourful and brimming with life and imagination. Lumbers depicts the library books coming to life – with vines sprouting from one book, bugs from another, and magic tricks busting from a magic book.

More than this though, is the attention to detail in the depiction of the library: the clever welcoming posters in the foyer, the comfortable chairs, the abundance of books, and the set up, which shows a spacious, well-lit modern library with a self-checkout. Lumbers and Coelho are at pains to depict not a fanciful idealisation of libraries and family life, but a confrontation of where we are and how we can still find happiness and hope within it. (Although I wish my local library was as well-lit and stocked).

Lastly, and by no means least, are the people depicted within the book. Lumbers and Coelho tick all boxes here, both the diverse mix of people using the library, but also in the comfort and ease of the body language – the children flopped over chairs, or tucked up tight, others with legs akimbo, hair wild and smiley faces. But the best – the armchair hug with Dad. You can almost feel it. You can buy it here.

 

 

 

When I Grow Up: A Guest Blog from Steve Antony

A few years ago, I and my daughter were lucky enough to go and see the show Matilda. Ever since, a popular song in our house has been ‘When I Grow Up’, both for the visual stimuli it recalls upon hearing it (thanks to the wonderful vivacity of the show), but also because of the sentiments expressed. Children can access its dreams of the future – its playfulness with projected children’s ideas of adulthood – being free of restrictions yet also not shackled by responsibility, and for adults there is a glint of nostalgia for the children they once were, as well as the reminder that we do have certain freedoms.

So, it was with great glee that I saw the lyrics being published as a children’s picture book, When I Grow Up by Tim Minchin, illustrated with the clever, observant and witty illustrations of Steve Antony. Not only does Antony express the vibrancy of the show, the emotion of the words, and the dream-like quality of the implications while keeping it real, but he also displays his trademark incidental inclusion – not just of children of all different backgrounds and abilities, but also subtle cultural allusions too. Look closely to find the Statue of Liberty holding aloft an ice cream, Mr Panda’s doughnuts, a sketch of Roald Dahl and more. Below, Steve Antony explains how the book came about, and the pressures of illustrating such an iconic song.

It’s 4AM. I am sat cross-legged on the my office floor surrounded by pencil shavings, staring at a blank piece of paper. I can recall that moment vividly.

I can recall another moment, too. The email via my literary agent Elizabeth Roy was totally out of the blue. A complete and utter surprise. I read it again and again. Tim Minchin would like to know if you might be interested in illustrating a picture book adaptation of WHEN I GROW UP from the hit musical Matilda.

The hard-to-explain thing is that I’d been waiting years for something like this without knowing exactly what ‘this thing I was waiting for’ was. A dream collaboration in every sense. WHEN I GROW UP would become my first illustrator-only picture book, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

I listened to the song over and over and over again. The more I listened to the song, the more I tried to draw how it made me feel. Wistful. Nostalgic. A bit sad. A bit happy. Exhilarated. Joyous. Hopeful. So many emotions. How can I convey all these emotions in one visual narrative?

I read and reread the song’s text several times over, without the piano, and tried imagining what ‘watching cartoons until your eyes go square’ or ‘eating sweets every day on the way to work’ or ‘fighting the monsters under your bed’ might look like. How will I take all these separate moments and seamlessly string them all together?

I also considered how I might incorporate the Matilda we all know and love into the book. Matilda, one of the most loved children’s books of all time. Can I even do that, and would that really be the best approach?

When I Grow Up is an incredibly popular song. It’s arguably the best, most iconic song from the musical Matilda and practically every child seems to know it off by heart, probably because it’s sang in schools up and down the country. How will I possibly do the song justice?

Slowly but surely, I began to realise just how challenging this would be. The challenge wasn’t illustrating Tim’s words. The challenge was adapting his words into a visual story while also capturing the essence of the song. Colours was another issue, in part because of my red-green colour blindness, but I’ll save that for another blog.

I tried using animal characters, but that didn’t work. I tried using adults, but that didn’t work either. I tried a drawing a dream sequence; that kind of worked but not quite. I tried drawing a dual narrative: an adult’s perspective and a child’s perspective. Too complicated. The one thing I didn’t do was draw ‘Matilda‘. There’s no way I can copy Quentin’s and it just didn’t feel right to draw a ‘new version’.

So many questions. So many options. Time was ticking away. I was surrounded by crumpled paper. Pencil shavings everywhere. Imposter syndrome began to creep in.

The problem was this. I was trying too hard. I wasn’t having fun. So I changed my approach. I began imagining how the child version of me would illustrate Tim’s song. In doing so I remembered how I used to fantasise about growing up: being able to stay up late, go on shopping sprees in Toys R Us, eat and drink whatever I want, whenever I want.

For me, When I Grow Up became about remembering that eagerness, that sense of ‘anything-is-possible’ hope and imagination we all once had as a child before getting bogged down with all our grown-up responsibilities. I would most definitely eat treats every day, climb the tallest trees and stay up late every night.

Speaking of which, it’s midnight. The book is now published. I couldn’t be happier with it. Tomorrow I’ll be onstage at Leicester Square theatre alongside Tim Minchin. Twitter’s gone a bit mental and I’m ‘liking’ and retweeting when really I should really be sleeping. Tim’s obviously noticed this because he just tweeted me: “Oi. Get to bed. Big weekend ahead.” He’s right. I’m off to bed. Goodnight.

With huge thanks to Steve Antony for making time in his schedule to write this for me. And you can buy your own copy of the book here.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend


There is a treat in store for children this October and it comes in the shape of this surprising, laugh-out-loud, inventive, wondrous new fantasy/magical book, one of the best children’s books published this year.

The story is about a cursed child called Morrigan, accepting of her forthcoming doom – her death on her 11th birthday – when she is dramatically, and rather hilariously, saved by a mysterious man called Jupiter North, who whisks her away to another land called Nevermoor, in which she won’t die. But there’s a catch – isn’t there always? – and to stay in Nevermoor she has to ‘win’ a place in the Wundrous Society by completing four weird and wonderful trials. If she fails she must go home, where she will meet her fate of death.

There are some excellent devices within the text. Morrigan’s new home is within the Hotel Deucalion, a wondrous place itself. Most children who have ever been in a hotel love to explore its nooks and crannies, to divine the layout and find the secrets, and Morrigan, along with the reader, does exactly this – sweeping through the interior and discovering great and wonderful things. It’s a fantastic motif to anchor the setting.

There’s much tongue-in-cheekery too – there is a scene at the beginning that shows school selection in Morrigan’s original land, and this certainly seems like a poke at grammar school selection, there is complicated politics within Nevermoor with the elite Wundrous Society, and Jupiter’s frequent forays to avert disaster within the city’s infrastructure, as well as the characters’ exceedingly well-conceived names, from Morrigan Crow to Jupiter North and beyond, as well as a dark unsettling Dahl-esque humour that contrasts wickedly with the warmth, colour and emotion of the main characters and the hotel occupants.

The reveals are well-timed; there are endless surprises, the trials are magical, fun, quirky and original, and each new scene evokes such empathy with Morrigan that the reader wills her to success at every turn.

Of course comparisons will abound, and accusations of borrowed ideas – the cursed child motif from Harry Potter, the trials from The Hunger Games among many others, shades of Christmas scenes borrowed from all children’s books ever, and the hooked umbrella travellator which reminded me of the doors conveyer belt in Monsters Inc, and the borrowed image of Mary Poppins floating down with her umbrella. But there are so many other innovative ideas, such originality in its conception, such world-building, with Townsend’s magnificats, vapour rooms, bedrooms that change overnight or even before your eyes, grounds in which the weather is slightly more exaggerated than everywhere else, that it doesn’t matter in the least where they came from.

There will be an envy felt by readers – who wouldn’t want a bedroom that morphs to suit the occupant’s personality and mood? But also readers will feel incredible pathos for a girl who essentially is unwanted by her family. But most of all the reader shares with Morrigan an ignorance of what is to come, of not knowing the full story, the rules of the new land she now lives within, and the motives of the people around her. Like every new immigrant, this is a story about passing the test of a new country, about finding out if you belong, who you are and where your home lies.

This is a pacey story, as apparently demanded in today’s modern fiction, and there will be sequels. (and a film apparently).

But what makes Nevermoor stand head and shoulders above the other children’s books this autumn? Is it the warmth, wittiness and pace, the combination of all of the above, or its very own special brand of magic? I think its the ease with which the whole comes together – the layers of the world feel like the softest sponge cake and icing – all coming together to create a magnificence to be devoured. The whole feels flawless, and tastes divine. There is magic within. Come find it yourself. You can buy it here.

You Choose in Space

Whenever I sneak a look at the top ten most borrowed books in the school library, there’s one book that always features. You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt is that dream of a book: children can read it over and over again, huddled around its pages with their friends, changing the narrative each time, reinventing the story in multiple ways, daydreaming their future. After a while, there is even a comforting familiarity about the illustrations. Just this week, some Year 3 pupils were going through the book making choices based on how much money their character had! So, it was with open arms that I embraced the new title, You Choose in Space. Whether it’s which alien you would befriend, what mode of transport you would use, or which freaky food you’d eat for your space snacks, the book has everything for a fun-filled interactive space adventure. Just as the original, the pages are packed with vibrant, colourful, happy images, giving full boost to any child’s imagination. It’s amazing to think that the original premise was rejected by publishers – for many children, You Choose has been their introduction to books. So, to turn the world on its head, I didn’t ask readers what they would choose in space, I asked Pippa and Nick. Here, are their choices for You Choose in Space:

 

 

Pippa:

Nick and I are actually pictured in the space craft coming in to land on Planet Pick-and-Mix.  Search carefully, and you’ll spot us!

If I had all those choices to choose from when we came down to land, I think I’d mostly go for blue things.  Why?  Because blue is my favourite colour.  I’d pick the blue bobbed hair to wear.

Nick: I’d choose the blue and orange hair and the Saturn top.

Pippa: A blue iced donut to eat.

Nick: It has to be the rainbow jelly for me.

Pippa: I’d very much like to meet the smiley blue alien with knobs on her head who rides a scooter and makes blue sandcastles from soft blue sand. I think she would make a fun friend.

Nick: I think the tall alien with the spike on the top of his head looks like he’d be nice and friendly.

Pippa: I’d also like to try and spy a duckafly from all the strange animal things as I fly by in one of those big baskets with wings.

Nick: My favourite is the horse bird.

Pippa: I’d very much like to ride on a pink-powered orange space hopper.  Why?  Because space hoppers were a new toy here on Earth when I was about ten, and I got one for my birthday, and I hopped and hopped on it again and again.  If it had that added pink zoom power I could hop it higher into the sky, and maybe even fly into space and explore all those other planets.

Nick: I had a space hopper too! But I’m going for the rollercopter.

With huge thanks to Pippa and Nick for taking time out of their busy writing and illustrating schedules to read their book with me. What would you choose? Go into space and make your own choices here.

 

Preaching to the Converted?

Recently, together with an associate reading consultant, I gave a talk to parents on children’s reading. The focus was on reading to children, listening to them read, encouraging them to read independently, and talking with children about reading. The aim is that all these elements come together to inspire a new generation of lifelong readers – children who grow into adults who love to read. This is important, not only because reading is a pleasurable thing to do, but because of its many life benefits – reducing stress, imparting knowledge, teaching empathy, improving academic attainment, teaching critical thinking, etc.

So, it was sad to have research published last month showing that parents and carers dedicate more time to screen time than to reading to their children – and that parents are so tired that they frequently skip pages when reading a story out loud.

When did we become so bad at time management? Between work, managing a house, looking after children, caring for elderly relatives, waiting for a late train, sitting in traffic, catching up with friends, answering emails, it often feels as if days fly past with barely a moment to wee, let alone time to stop and pick up a book.

But maybe it’s more than that. It’s not actually that we’re pushed for time – after all we have appliances to do so many things for us, conveniences all around us, making the duller parts of our lives easier: we don’t even have to travel to the shops anymore – they come to us. So I would argue it’s not that we’re pushed for time, it’s that we don’t see reading as a worthwhile spend of our time. Even with the benefits pointed out to us (increased cognitive development, slower heart rate when reading, increased sensitivity to others, vocabulary acquisition, etc), we don’t pick up a book and read because the process takes a considerable amount of time in the doing of it, and the aftermath also uses time as we reflect and think about what we’ve consumed. We’re in a rush to keep up, a rush to see things, a rush to live – and reading doesn’t suit that sensibility. It seems easier to scroll through a vista of tweets or ‘posts’ than it does to read a chapter.

Whether you argue that screens have dented our ability to concentrate, or whether you argue that there’s too much choice in our leisure time, it does seem that our ‘value’ of the arts has diminished. The governments here (in the UK) and in the US have clamped down on arts funding; we are closing libraries and making librarians redundant at the same busy pace with which we do everything else, there is less money in education, so the first things being cut are access to music, arts, the theatre – I know of schools with 20-minute transport links to central London that haven’t offered their students any arts outings in four years of schooling. This is mirrored by the drop (to its lowest level since GCSEs began) in students taking art and design qualifications. In fact, the number of students taking design and technology has fallen each year since 2003. Cultural institutions such as the V&A are now trying to address this issue, which is laudable, but we need to have a serious think about the cuts in education that are devaluing more creative subjects.

And if we value our books and our literature, then why do we demand discounted prices? Why shop on Amazon for the book at its cheapest retail price rather than pay the price printed on the book? This is something that Philip Pullman has been in the press for recently, already decrying the discount on his as-yet-unpublished Book of Dust. We need to have a deep hard think about what price we pay for quality. Since the end of the net book agreement in the 1990s, are we at risk from devaluing literature? If we all wait until a book is on the 99p Kindle offer at Amazon before we buy it, who sees any profit? Lower prices and discounts certainly begin to push out independent presses, small agencies, and less prolific, less well-known, but ultimately talented authors.

Are we paying for the experience a book gives us? In which case, it’s awfully good value to buy hours of reading time for a paperback price of £6.99, assuming that an average book takes about four hours to read. Or, are we paying for the effort that went into producing the book – as in West End theatre in which the high ticket price is justified in the spend on actors’ time, costumes, production etc? In which case, we would be paying sky high prices for a piece of literature. Donna Tartt says she takes about ten years to write a book – imagine how eye-watering the price would be, especially when you add in her books’ production and printing costs.

Of course, there have been weigh-ins on both sides of this debate. Lauren Child, the new children’s laureate, at The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference in September, suggested that the price of books was actually too low – although of course it’s worth bearing in mind the many many people who don’t consider buying books at all, because they don’t have the means. In The Times on 30th September, Julian Rivers, formerly the Marketing Director of Dillons, sought to defend discounting, saying that it led to increased book sales, and not just of the discounted titles, although personally I reckon Dillons still decry the people who physically browse in the bookshop and yet search Amazon on their smartphone for the book at a cheaper price.

Children’s books in particular have become part of this ‘value’ debate with the recent slew of celebrity books in the genre – particularly with the latest furore surrounding the domination of World Book Day 2018 titles by celebrities and brands. I have written about this before, but it does downplay the whole genre of children’s books when they are viewed by the wider public as being an extension of a celeb’s brand, rather than a genre of literature in its own right.

There are some excellent children’s books by celebrities, (I’ve reviewed some very favourably on this site), but having them saturate the marketplace, or dominate the WBD titles, does mean that the perception may be skewed. Shouldn’t we strive to give children the very best books we can, (they are our future book buyers), and from a wide diverse range of authors, not just those we see on TV? Diverse authors in terms of culture, background, upbringing, debuts, career authors etc. Of course the WBD organisers argue that pricing a book at £1 and giving children an opportunity to buy a book for the first time is their remit – and that having a celebrity on the book makes it more likely that a first-time book buyer will spend their token, but I think the question we have to ask in the long-term is  – what is the industry trying to do? Do we want children to consume celebrity culture, or do we want to inspire in them a lifelong love for reading and books? Can one lead to the other, or does a celeb book just promote the celeb’s other endeavours? How can we best ensure a broad range of quality children’s literature – with pictures, with comedy and literary merit, with prose and poetry, with darkness and light.

It’s time to think about how much value we place upon books and the act of reading.

If reading sends blood to parts of the brain that weren’t previously in use, if it reduces stress, imparts knowledge, and teaches empathy for our fellow humans, all of which scientists prove, then shouldn’t we be at least paying more attention to it, giving it the time it so clearly deserves?

So, don’t skip the pages – they may hold the answer to your future time management, or they may give your child the spark of joy they’ve been looking for – but most of all, carve out the time to read just a page or two a night. Those words probably took the author hours to craft.

A Visit to The Children’s Bookshow


Was it unfair to split the audience into cats (Judith Kerr) and dogs (John Burningham)?

In actuality, Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times did point out the similarities between Judith Kerr’s work and John Burningham’s work. They both had huge success with their debut books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Borka respectively, and Nicolette Jones also showed the audience slides of the little detailed parallels between the two illustrators’ work – depictions of a cat and dog peeing, a baby in a blue romper – much to the amusement of the audience of school children.

This was on September 29th, at The Old Vic Theatre in London, where I was a guest at The Children’s Bookshow, a charity that runs an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators around theatres and venues in the UK for schoolchildren.

John Burningham set quite a high bar for illustrators back in 1963 when he published Borka. Not only was he the first to win the Kate Greenaway Award for a debut picture book, but his was also the first children’s book that Jonathan Cape published. It wasn’t to be the last. Unique it may have been, but it also depicted a now well-worn trope in children’s literature – that of a child, or in this case a goose, who doesn’t fit in.

Judith Kerr’s Tiger also boasts enormous longevity, with its now familiar warm domestic scenes, and like Borka, shows great sensitivity in the emotions it depicts and elicits.

And whether it was discussing first signs of a promising career, their work, or their travels, both illustrators showed their warmth and zest for life in Friday’s conversation.

Kerr’s childhood has been well documented, most particularly of course, in her own novelised version of her life, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. She speaks about her escape from soon-to-be Nazi Germany, talking about the near-misses in life that dictate how the future turns out:

“I think of the people who didn’t get out who would have given anything to have a small part of the life I’ve had.” Her modesty glimmers through in every sentence as she speaks of the glare her mother gave her for almost giving them away to the passport inspector on the train:

“I wasn’t the most intelligent child,” she says, but she was clearly talented, for her mother had the foresight to save her childhood drawings, bringing them with her in a small suitcase from Germany.

Burningham too, has travelled extensively, although his journeys were mainly contained within the UK. The one place he hasn’t visited is the fictionalised place he references in answer to a well-worn question. As with many children’s authors, he’s often asked where he gets ideas from, and he says his favourite answer to that was the person who said, “If I knew, I’d go there.”

He may not have been to the land of ideas, but it certainly seems as if he has. His latest book shows the quirkiness and specialised way of thinking that many of the top children’s authors and illustrators possess. There is a purposeful naivety to his drawings, but also an idiosyncratic approach to the storytelling which enables him to see things from a different point of view – Mouse House explores the plight of a mouse family when a pest controller is called in by the human parents. The children of the house write a warning note to the mice, enabling them to leave before their execution. Of course, as with many children’s critics, Nicolette Jones reads into this the plight of refugees, perhaps echoing the experiences of Kerr, who is also on stage, recounting her refugee childhood. But it is this very quality that distinguishes Burningham’s work – the ability to read the narrative whichever way one is inclined.

For both illustrators, there is no end to the ideas they have, as proven by their prolific output. Whether inspiration is taken from true-life occurrences, such as Kerr’s father, who for a short time attempted to adopt a seal, retold more kindly in Mr Cleghorn’s Seal, to Burningham’s take on the world around us in such books as Whaddayamean, an exploration of arms control and pollution.

Both infuse their books with their own sense of humour, which comes across in conversation too. Be it stumbling into the illustrators’ world, or failing illustration class at the Central School of Art (Kerr is the latter), they both approach illustration as a privilege and an honour, and are delighted to still be practising the art – Kerr is 94, Burningham, slightly younger at age 81. They are both still working, and still promoting children’s literature, especially to the noisy and enthusiastic audience at the Old Vic, as Burningham says, “I don’t worry about the ideas running out, I worry about time running out.”

 

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.