adoption

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.

Hetty Feather at the Foundling Museum

There are days when all my kids and I want to do is find a patch of green in the sunlight somewhere in London and read our books. But, living in such a great city gives us many opportunities to explore. And there’s nothing I like better than matching a day out with a book.

That’s exactly what they’ve done at The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square. Their exhibition, Picturing Hetty Feather, runs from now until September 3rd and explores not only the history of the Foundling Hospital, but also how Hetty Feather was brought to life by Jacqueline Wilson in a book, and then on stage, and screen.

The Hetty Feather exhibition is very hands-on. There are workshops being led throughout the summer, and you can see the list by clicking here, (including a talk from Jacqueline Wilson herself, traditional bookbinding and creative writing), but even in the main museum there are activities to do.

The exhibits range from the historical to props used in the modern TV show. I was particularly taken with Jacqueline Wilson’s original Hetty Feather manuscript, in the most beautiful leather notepad, as well as the original matron’s mallet, and an 18th century pew. There are the children’s coat pegs from the original hospital (now hanging with dress-up costumes), as well as film clips of the TV programme, a schoolroom, dinner plates, and more.

What’s great is how the museum brings history to life with compelling stories – the staircase in the museum is the original staircase from the boys’ wing, with a wide flat sturdy handrail that was ideal for the braver boys to slide down. In the 18th century, iron spikes were put there instead, due to an incident in which a boy had fallen to his death – a story to turn into a novel if ever I heard one. It’s not only the history that pulls, but also the empathetic tone of much of the narrative throughout the museum. Children are asked to imagine the lives of the children at the Foundling Hospital – what they ate, how they slept, how they felt when their names were changed, how and if they behaved according to the strict Victorian rules. Today’s visitors can dress up, fill out their own menus, and write letters home.

Upstairs, there are some inventive ideas too. Children can visit the governors’ meeting room (the Court Room), not something many of the foundlings did I’m sure, and hold a mirror up to examine more closely the highly decorated ceiling. There are also the original tokens the children had (given to them as identifiers in place of their names, which were changed to prevent difficulties for the mothers), and some beautiful yet evocative paintings by Emma Brownlow depicting various situations in the children’s lives.

With a café too, and green spaces outside in Brunswick Square Gardens, this is a lovely way to spend an hour or two. You can buy a copy of Hetty Feather here.

Enduring Friendships in Story: a guestpost by Melissa Savage

The publishers describe Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage in three words as ‘bittersweet’, ‘quirky’, and ‘adventure’. I wholeheartedly agree, and would add that this is a beautifully written tale, in which the voice of the protagonist, Lemonade, comes across strongly and perfectly – with just enough bite to ensure that her sweet winning personality has a lemony tang to it. It’s a tale set in California during the time of the Vietnam War, and describes how Lemonade fits into her new surroundings and makes new friends after she moves to live with her grandfather. With emotionally astute adults, a sensitivity to loss, and themes of identity and belonging, this is a fantastically enjoyable book, and I am delighted to host author Melissa Savage on the blog. 

I have had the great fortune of meeting many children as I have shared my new debut middle grade novel, Bigfoot, Tobin & Me (Lemons in the United States) and I’m often asked which part of the book I enjoyed writing most. My answer is always the same. Writing scenes between Lemonade and Tobin. I love their unconventional friendship. They are so different in so many ways and they must argue their points until they can come to some type of agreement on how to come to some sort of agreement. Although they are very different, there is so much about them that is also the same. And they soon learn they need one another. They may not know it at the start of the story, but they soon learn that their friendship will be one of endurance because of who they are, what they’ve been through together and what they now share. Doesn’t everyone want that very special friendship that endures regardless of our differences, foul moods and bad choices, and even change?

I remember while growing up, I loved to read about friendships that endure. Some of the most impactful stories that spoke deeply to me included Katherine Paterson’s Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia, Bette Greene’s Beth Lambert and Phillip Hall from Phillip Halls Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, and Judy Blume’s Sheila Tubman and Mouse Ellis from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. What these three duos have in common is their contrasting personalities and how these opposite traits are just the thing that binds them.

Jess and Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia are an unlikely pair and become friends after Leslie moves to town. Jess is a sad and lonely boy while Leslie is outgoing and imaginative. The two are soon inseparable and together form a secret kingdom, which Leslie names Terabithia. One of the lovely aspects to this friendship is that it sustains even in death, as Leslie is tragically killed in a drowning accident and Jess finds a way to accept the reality of her loss and honor her memory.

Beth and Phillip from Phillip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe, have what one could describe as a boisterous relationship at times. Beth has a crush on Phillip and the two are in constant competition with one another for being the best in the class. Beth wonders if she is letting Phillip be number one because she thinks he is the cutest boy in school. However, at the end of the story when Beth finally does win a 4-H competition over Phillip, she realizes that even if she is number one occasionally, their friendship will sustain.

Sheila and Mouse from Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is a story I have read countless times growing up. Sheila meets Mouse when Sheila’s family spends the entire summer in upstate New York’s Tarrytown. Sheila is a fearful child, riddled with anxieties, however overcompensates for her fears with boastful inaccuracies to hide her self-perceived weaknesses from others. As she and Mouse become friends, Mouse begins to see through Sheila’s façade and finally lovingly confronts her about her falsehoods. And it is through this honest interaction that Sheila begins to shed her mask and learn to take chances she hadn’t done before, even if she’s scared.

What qualities do these friendships share? Honesty, sensitivity, empathy, and fun.

There are many themes present in Bigfoot, Tobin & Me, but enduring friendship is one very important one. The friendship between Lemonade and Tobin is one that is honest and loyal, and it soon becomes unconditional no matter how many times they disagree on Twinkies, steer, or where to keep the message pad, because of all that they have endured. Enduring friendship continues to be a desired theme in story in childhood and beyond. It is my hope that Lemonade and Tobin’s enduring friendship is one that speaks to kids around the world as the many enduring friendships in my most favorite books growing up have spoken to me.

With thanks to Melissa Savage. Bigfoot, Tobin & Me by Melissa Savage is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). It is filled with clever character descriptions, including wise Mrs Dickerson and her “bright pink lipstick that looks like it’s slipping off”, and expert perceptions of child preoccupations such as: “I surf wind waves with my hand out of the window and try to ignore him” on a car journey. The writing is immersive and a pleasure to read, and the tale, although far-fetched, draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. One of the best books for this age group that you’ll read this summer. You can buy it here and I heartily recommend that you do. Ages 8+ years. 

 

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Lauren Wolk’s much anticipated second novel for children, after the phenomenal Wolf Hollow, does not disappoint. Set on the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, Beyond the Bright Sea also features a young girl coming of age, but in a different time and in a very different way. This is a book about finding out who you are, and what defines the self.

Crow was taken in as a baby by her adoptive father Osh, when she was found in a boat washed up on his island. They live a simple life in a simpler time – the book is set in 1920 – their house is made from assorted remnants of shipwrecks and they spend most of their days in the pursuit of survival – fishing for food, drying their bodies from the sea and sand, keeping warm. Osh also paints, and sells his paintings to the tourists who frequent the islands in the summer months.

But Crow knows that there is much mystery surrounding her origins. Local people shun her, believing that she arrived when her boat was set adrift from nearby Penikese Island, which used to house a leper colony. When she spies a strange fire alight on that long-abandoned island, it sets her on her quest to discover where she really came from, and why she was cast away.

The plot itself unfurls at a steady pace, each chapter posing a new element to the mysteries in question, although all are answered fairly swiftly. But it is the poetic intensity of the prose that fires the reader, as well as the impeccable characterisation of Crow herself – a resolute, vibrant, curious and yet thoughtful heroine – and the two adults who orbit her – Osh (a loner and thinker), and Miss Maggie, who both provide Crow, and by default, the reader, with a library of quiet wisdoms.

“an island is one thing when a man has a boat, quite another when he doesn’t.”

Wolk has a way of crafting her sentences like a balancing scale, they sit calmly on the page, and yet have the slight rhythm and undulation of the sea. Although the book is layered with such phrases, Wolk never stoops to sentimentality or preaching.

“I was learning that some things take time, and worrying wouldn’t change that.”

She writes of simple people living a minimalist way of life by the sea, and she echoes this in her precise vocabulary, which feels of the landscape (and new to an urbanite such as myself), with words such as skiff, bluff, and kettle ponds. But all the time, it is precise and economical and sparse – Wolk pursues specificity, and describes things in just a few words, making the prose all the more powerful for its simplicity, just like Osh’s painting:

“sometimes Osh painted a single yellow flower in a pale green marsh, and it was all the better for being just one.”

The nationality and skin tones of Osh and Crow are unclear, although Wolk shows the reader that they are different from each other and the rest of the islanders, but that is part of the beauty – her vagueness in this matter lends the text a feel of the everyman.

The book does dip slightly in the second half. As Crow’s mysteries were solved fairly easily, I became frustrated that deeper questions I had about Miss Maggie and Osh were left cloudy, but then one could argue that the writer always leaves some gaps for the reader to paint in themselves. I also query the slight overuse of foreshadowing, which tends to interrupt the flow, but these are minor criticisms – if all writers could write half as well as Wolk, we’d have a phenomenal literary party.

There is no moralising in this tale, just a simple message of people and their actions: family is the one you choose yourself, not that which you are born to, in the same way that who you are is what you do, not where you come from. You can buy it here.

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl here.

Tiger Smiles

Augustus and his smile

Ten years ago Catherine Rayner won the Book Trust Early Years Award with Augustus and His Smile. This lovely picture book about emotion and the landscape of the world captivated readers with the beauty of its ink and wash illustrations.

Augustus the Tiger is sad and has lost his smile. He sets off to find it…and searches through a multitude of landscapes, until in the end he realises that happiness is all around him – and finds his smile in his reflection in water. Of course, the story is simple enough, but the magic of the book lies in the intensity of the illustrations – apparent from the start when Augustus stretches before his search.

Rayner’s illustration of Augustus stretching reaches across a double page, and blends the ink and gentle orange toning with the wildness of the reeds and grasses in which he is stretching. It’s an image that is almost tangible – immediately apparent that Rayner took her inspiration and guidance from tigers she watched in Edinburgh zoo.

A colour wash lends a fluid feel to the images, capturing the movement of the animals, birds and insects. The images are simple, minimalistic, but created with shadow and scale to create a perspective of real animals in the wild.

The tiger’s padding and leaping is magical, as is the fact that Rayner has also managed to incorporate a human smile into the tiger’s face, without it being strange – it is as much a part of him as his tail.

Smiles are contagious – studies have found that it’s not impossible, but actually very difficult to remain frowning at someone who is smiling back. Developing babies even smile in the womb. And for children it is important for them to be shown smiles. Over a third of us smile more than 20 times a day, but for children the number of smiles a day rises to a staggering 400, and we want to keep it that way. Perhaps we can learn from this too – a study at Penn State University found that when you smile, you appear more likeable, courteous, and even more competent.

There’s another reason to smile with the 10th anniversary edition (with gold foil jacket) of Augustus and His Smile. David Shephard Wildlife Foundation are offering animal adoptions (tigers) with a special edition adoption pack including a signed edition Augustus print, the book, and a soft tiger toy.

Tigers have lost about 93 per cent of their natural range due to deforestation and climate change, among other things, and are an endangered species. But we can smile, as tiger numbers in the wild are now finally on the rise again up to 3,890 in April 2016 from 3,200 in 2010. Wildlife charities would like to double tiger numbers by 2022, giving them enhanced protection from illegal wildlife markets and compensating for, and halting, the loss of their natural habitat.

Take a look at the book, admire the tigers, find your smile and hopefully the next generation will be smiling at the doubled number of tigers in a few years’ time. You can buy the book here.

 

Little Bits of Sky by S E Durrant

little bits of sky

Every so often a book is published that oozes emotional intelligence. This is one such novel. Told from the point of view of a young girl in the care system in the 1980’s, the book is much more than its plot or subject matter. The author Christopher Edge recently asked on Twitter for examples of a distinctive outstanding voice in children’s fiction. I would recommend this book to him. Written in the first person, eleven year old Ira (the protagonist) steps out of the book and into the reader’s head.

It is an easy read, the writing flows almost as if Ira is saying ‘and then this happened, and then this happened’, and yet with acutely attentive and well-crafted writing, such as in the aftermath of the big 1987 October storm, when Ira witnesses a tree falling and a house with its roof blown off:

“We Skilly [care home kids] were really excited. We already knew everything could be turned upside down at any moment and now everyone else could see it too.”

The prose screams authenticity. Ira’s thoughts spill out fluently but she also creates childlike lists as she goes, such as favourite things, favourite people. At the same time, her thoughts are subtle and understated. Ira is clearly emotionally damaged by her ignorance about what really happened to her parents and her unsettling past (shipped from home to home), but she maintains an equilibrium throughout the novel, a general matter-of-factness that conveys the world around her simply. In this way the prose spells out her personality – a calm veneer with a raging storm beneath. And her perceptions of the people and things around her are conveyed with simplicity:

“Anita says we had a mum once but she couldn’t look after us any more. It’s what people say to care kids. It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like saying its cold outside when really it could be stormy or wet or snowy or icy and you haven’t got a window so you can’t check. All you know is you’d better put your coat on.”

Her matter-of-fact voice represses the emotion and hidden complexities that lie hidden just beneath the surface. She manages to size up her situation and other characters in a few words – but at the same time pointing to that which is unsaid between the lines. Durrant does this all the time with her writing. In this case when the children are eating personalised chocolate Easter eggs:

“Eating an egg with your name on is one of the nicest things in the world. But it does have to be your own name.”

Another quality that shines through is the humour, despite the threads of sadness and worry that sometimes interrupt Ira’s thoughts. She is sometimes funny without meaning to be (the author’s influence at playing with the reader is apparent here), and sometimes funny on purpose, but many wry smiles are sprinkled throughout the book:

“Hortense says teenagers need family more than anyone else, which is a shame because teenagers are the least lovely sort of kid.”

There is also a stunning representation of sibling affection. Ira is in care with her younger brother Zak, and the care and protectiveness she demonstrates for her brother is heart-wrenching, but it’s her understanding of him that is truly magical:

“Martha said to Zac, “Do you like it?”
Zac shrugged, which gave the wrong impression. It was because he liked it too much.”

In fact, all the secondary characters are drawn with equal sensitivity and intelligence, from the adults in the care system to the other children in care. In particular, the fairly stereotypical Jimmy, who although represented as the archetypal care child, is in fact drawn beautifully by Durrant, so that you feel an intense sadness when reading about him. Also, Pip, because her hurt is apparent through the protagonist’s insightful way of looking at her:

“She didn’t say anything at tea and she didn’t look at anyone. I tried to catch her eye but it was like she had a wall in front of her face. She looked sad sitting there looking at her wall.”

This wall cleverly blends in with the historical setting of the book, which treads from 1987 to 1990, incorporating the huge storm of October 1987 in Britain as well as the protestations over the poll tax, and finally the taking down of the Berlin Wall. The events are woven carefully into the narrative, and each one resonates with the children in a different way, but again, with layers of intelligence so that they fit into the plot – or rather the plot fits into them.

This is not a complicated plot, a huge tragedy, an outlandish comedy or a blaring book. The whole story is understated, and yet reaches a perfection that few books with wall-to-wall marketing reach. This is a stand-alone title – the author makes this clear from the ending, in which the protagonist is grown up, and it’s refreshing in children’s literature to read about what happens to the characters when they are older – this device reminded me slightly of Carrie’s War.

But this title should be shouted about for the authenticity of Ira’s voice, for the tangibility of the characters – by the end of the novel I was crying for two reaons – the uplifting spirit in which it ended, and because by finishing the book I had come to the end of a beautifully written children’s book. Treat yourself. Read it to your child so that you can both enjoy it. You can buy it here.

Cover and inside illustrations by Katie Harnett

Love in the Time of Children’s Books

book heart

I couldn’t resist a small Valentine’s Day post this week. But we are talking kids’ books so I’ll be very gentle.

I love you blue kangaroo

First Love: I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark
This has to be defined by love for a soft toy. Whether it’s a teddy or a monkey, for many of us our first true love was with a ball of fluff. To honour this I have chosen I Love You, Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clark. For those of you who don’t know the series, Blue Kangaroo is Lily’s favourite toy. In I Love You, Blue Kangaroo, Lily receives a stream of soft toy presents from an array of family members who have come to tea, to stay, or for her birthday – and gradually Blue Kangaroo gets edged further and further away from Lily at bedtime as the new toys take over. Then, one night Blue Kangaroo is pushed out of bed altogether and takes refuge with Lily’s little brother. Lily attempts to retrieve him:
“Mine!” cried the baby.
“No!” shouted Lily.
But Lily’s mother is aghast that Lily is pulling Blue Kangaroo from her baby brother’s arms when she has so many other toys. In the end Lily’s choice is easy – she hands over all the other toys to the baby, retaining only one:
“He can have all of these,” she said,
“but nobody can have Blue Kangaroo!”
This picture book reveals the beauty in allowing us to latch onto something special and keep it for ourselves – not everything has to be shared. Sometimes an attachment to one other object or person is what gives us security, passion and self-awareness. With up to 70 per cent of young children in the Western World having some sort of attachment to a toy or blanket, it’s good to see picture books celebrating this.
Age 4+

winnie the pooh

Friend Love: Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne
I can think of few other books for young children that teach friendship as well as Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne. In the first story, this is demonstrated by Christopher Robin’s devotion to Pooh – helping him to obtain honey without ridiculing his plans, and assisting the madness by marching up and down with an umbrella in bright sunshine pretending it’s going to rain – Christopher Robin does not lose patience at all. Then, friendship is demonstrated in Pooh Bear’s loving generosity and kindness for Eeyore, as Pooh tries to lift Eeyore’s depression by bringing him birthday presents and building him a new house. In fact the entire population of 100 Acre Wood show their love for each other in their attempts to rescue their friend Eeyore from falling into the river, and their solidarity in their expositions to the pole, and their gradual acceptance of their ‘new’ friend when Tigger joins the wood. The epitome for me though remains the friendship between Pooh and Piglet. In every adventure Pooh attempts to motivate Piglet into overcoming his shyness and timidity, whether it be tracking woozles or tricking Kanga. In fact, it is the thought of helping Pooh that enables Piglet to summon the courage and rescue Pooh and Owl during a blustery day.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
Age range 5-105 yrs

Danny Champion of the World

Parental Love: Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Of course, before realisation dawns at puberty that our parents aren’t perfect, we may well in some cases idealise our parents, and certainly strive to please them. One of the very best examples of a father/son relationship in children’s fiction has to be the classic Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.
Danny lives with his Dad in a gypsy caravan at the garage where his father is a mechanic. One day he discovers his father’s love for pheasant hunting, and together they hatch a plan to outwit the horrible land-owner, Mr Victor Hazell, who doesn’t permit poaching on his land. Although an adventure story, the essence of Danny, Champion of the World is the relationship between him and his father. Danny almost hero-worships his father, and joins him in somewhat criminal activity which is life-threateningly dangerous, and yet in Danny’s eyes his father can do no wrong. Not only that but they have a strong emotional dependence upon each other, as Roald Dahl has written out the mother figure and any close friends. The story hinges on the moral choices that Danny makes, and the guidance and advice he gets from his father.
“My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”
Age range: 7+ years.

Ballet Shoes

Sister Love: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Much middle grade fiction focuses on sibling tensions, jealousies and anxieties, but one of the truest forms of sister love is portrayed when the girls have actively chosen their own sisterhood. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield is a classic chidren’s book, slightly dated and old-fashioned, but nevertheless with a great sense of story and theatre. It tells of three orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy – adopted by an eccentric fossil collector. They decide to share a surname – Fossil – and thus impose sisterhood on themselves. The three sisters are very different people with different ambitions, and through the book they demonstrate sisterly love by working hard and sacrificing certain things in order that their other sisters can benefit. Pauline wants to work in the theatre, Petrova with cars, and Posy in ballet. The sisters like to insist that they have no family heritage to live up to as they are all adoptees – they have no ties that bind, and each birthday they make a vow to make something of the Fossil name themselves – unfettered. And yet, a clear component of their confidence and achievements is the support network of being one of three. What’s also lovely about this book is that the children are surrounded by adults who take an interest in their lives and want to spend time with them. Noel’s older sister Ruth illustrated the book when it was first published. Age range about 7+yrs.

The Last Wild

Animal Love: The Last Wild by Piers Torday
I wanted to include this book in my Valentine’s Day selection for two reasons. Firstly, because I really do love it – like a friend or like a Desert Island Disc book, and secondly because it fits in well under animal love in an unexpected way. This isn’t a book that is about a boy who loves animals – it doesn’t feature a trusty dog or a cuddly rabbit pet. This isn’t a typical ‘animal’ book – it’s an outstanding adventure story set in a dystopian landscape. It’s about courage and the environment and our relationship to it, and also about communication.
The Last Wild is a highly original story of a boy called Kester who is mute, but realises he can communicate with animals. This is particularly startling as he lives in a time when all the animals have been wiped out by a terrible virus. The Last Wild tells how a flock of pigeons and a particularly confident cockroach lead him to the last surviving group of animals in a desperate attempt to get him to help them save themselves. Kester’s (and the reader’s) love for animals grows as the story progresses. By the end we too love the animals, even the cockroach, because the animals have demonstrated their qualities to us – their loyalty, their strength, their bravery, and their fight for justice. I don’t want to give too much away – it’s a fast-paced, creative, brainstorming triumph. Buy it for every child you know aged about 9 or older.

Romance
There was a discussion this week among several bloggers/authors/interested partners about the place of romance in middle grade fiction. Most agreed that really there was no place for it, and that romantic love belongs in the Young Adult genre, not any younger. In much middle grade fiction, there is a ‘friendship’ that develops between a boy and a girl, or a tag team of boy and girl who attempt to solve the mystery/adventure together. One trilogy that cropped up time and again as one which features a form of romantic love is that of Will and Lyra from His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, and of course there is the kiss in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (although many would argue that Harry Potter ventures into YA territory and away from MG the further into the books one ventures). Quite often in middle grade books romantic love is introduced when the protagonist has an older sister or brother and it is through them (as an aside almost) that we witness love. But generally the argument is that middle grade is for finding your own identity – your own place in the world. Only once we graduate to young adult fiction do we start to become entangled in that messy web of romantic love.

 

Image: Book Heart from OnlyImage.com

Penguin or Owl?

So first there was snow – and then there were penguins. I’m not sure when penguins became synonymous with Christmas, but this year they certainly have – from the John Lewis advert to the Penguins of Madagascar, Penguins have arrived in London in time for Christmas.

owl or penguin
When I was little I had a small soft toy called Owly. It was loved and cherished (see its somewhat battered state now), but it was only recently that someone pointed out that maybe it’s a penguin. So I thought – that’s a great premise for a book – the penguin with the mistaken identity. In the meantime, here are some books that have already been written:

Penguin Polly DunbarPouting Boy
Penguin by Polly Dunbar
My overall abiding love for this book is one illustration that depicts a facial expression, in which a close member of my family is THE expert. Penguin tells the story of a boy called Ben who receives a penguin as a present, but the penguin will not communicate with him, no matter what Ben does. Finally Ben is eaten by a lion, the penguin saves him, and the penguin suddenly has a great deal to say. The book is packed with witty illustrations, a zany storyline and a winning outcome. An old favourite. Penguins are often used as a way to explore and develop friendships in picture books – I wonder if that’s because they are often depicted huddling together? Two perfect examples of penguin friends are Fluff and Billy Do Everything Together by Nicola Killen and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers.

Fluff and BillyLost and Found
Fluff and Billy tells the tale of when play between friends gets rough leading to hurt and falling out – before there is forgiveness and friendship again. It works well to read aloud to a small child because the book is littered with repetition. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is fast becoming a children’s classic. The book tells the story of a boy who opens the door one day to see a penguin standing on his doorstep. He spends much of the book grappling with what to do with the penguin – until realising at the end that the penguin just wants a friend. Jeffers’ illustrations are beguilingly simple – less is more in fact. Jeffers said that the illustrations are deliberately simple so that children, wherever they are, can fill in the gaps with their own individual landscapes. Characters too – the penguin is a few simple lines – it almost seems as if the characters of the boy and the penguin are more expressive the less detail they have. Jeffers’ text also shines with a simple clarity – basic plotlines mixed with truisms and pathos:
“He ran down to the harbour and asked a big ship to take them to the South Pole. But his voice was much too small to be heard over the ship’s horn.”
So much expressed so simply – the vastness of the ship and the world as compared to a small boy asking for help.

Blown Away
The new addition to the ‘penguin’ canon of literature, and published in August of this year is Blown Away by Rob Biddulph. I implore you to find and read a copy. Rob Biddulph’s blue penguin may be more ‘Hampstead Heath’ inspired than normal Antarctic penguins, but, like Jeffers, his penguin is simply drawn – Biddulph too remarking that children can put their own emotions into the animals, so simple black dots for eyes work best. With rhyming text, Biddulph explores what happens when Blue the penguin gets blown away on his kite, picking up cargo along the way, and finally setting down onto a jungle island. But does he want to stay?
“’How nice,” says Blue,
A lovely spot,
Although it is
a bit too hot.”
The beauty of this book lies in the small details. Every page is lovingly created so that your eyes pick up the story and the animals’ emotions almost by osmosis – the rhyming text is lovely to read aloud, but the extra touches on the illustrations won me over. A charming Christmas present that’s not just for Christmas!

Dragon Loves Penguin
My last picture book is Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori, shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Awards. I coordinate the testing in my area for this award, so know very well how popular this book has proved with young children. It celebrates diversity, and is even relevant for those attempting to explain adoption to the very young – in essence it’s about mother’s love. When an egg is abandoned, a dragon without its own egg adopts it, but when it hatches it’s a penguin! Despite the differences, the mother dragon loves the penguin as her own, and the love makes the little penguin brave enough to see off her dragon peers who can’t accept her differences, and also to escape an erupting volcano. Yes, this little picture book is packed full of action – and has adorable illustrations – rarely has a penguin chick looked quite so cute.

The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out
For slightly older readers, in the Jill Tomlinson series of animal books is The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out. Beautifully told so that the reader learns about penguins at the same time as digesting the story. Jill Tomlinson’s strength is her ability to weave fiction and non-fiction seamlessly here, with some magical lines:
“The trouble was, not all adults were good at answering questions, or would try.”

The Emperors EggUsborne Beginners Penguin
For those children who want to find out even more, and for adults who can’t tell the difference between an owl and a penguin here are two great non-fiction titles for early learners.The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman, is part of the Nature Storybooks series – telling the story of the Emperor penguins. It’s an excellent starting point for a young child wishing to find out more information. It’s not patronising, but is written as if the child is having a conversation with the writer about penguins. Asking questions of the young reader, particularly ones that make them think, is a lovely way to write a non-fiction book. No wonder this won the TES Junior Information Book Award. The Usborne Beginners series has a book on penguins; I like this series for their gentle introduction to non-fiction. Helpfully containing a glossary and an index, and with short chunks of text throughout for easily digestible facts. It also covers many different types of penguins. Usborne have also had their facts checked by experts in the field, which sadly, is not true of all children’s non-fiction in the marketplace.