Book of the Week

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

small in the cityPicture books are often banded together as if they were a simple genre. But even in one quick thirty-minute book club session at school, I can show my Year 6 cohort that picture books come in all shapes and sizes, are aimed at all different ages, can be about a multitude of topics, and really shouldn’t be all lumped together in a kinderbox. And really great picture books manage to traverse these different categories all in one book.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith (winner of the Kate Greenaway in 2018 for Town is by the Sea, and winner of many awards for Sidewalk Flowers) is ostensibly the travails of a small child in a big city. But delve within, and it’s a picture book about loss.

A small child, first seen on a bus, as on the front cover, travels into a large city, depicted with large steel skyscrapers, traffic, and many people. Wordless at first, the text begins a few pages in with Small’s voice, and at first the reader may believe that Small is talking to them, explaining the noise of the city and the busyness. But it very gradually becomes apparent that this internal monologue is not to you, the reader, but to a missing cat.

The text is observational but also advisory – explaining that the child feels empathy for the lost pet, and wants to guide them home with hope and clarity. The text initially feels as if it is advising the navigation of a big city, but it also merges with advice on life itself; beware of big dogs, look for friendly faces.

After a time, the reader sees that the child is putting up pink posters all over the city for the missing cat (readers will have to look back through the book to see where they missed this first time round), the cleverness of the child apparent in where the posters are placed – a fishmonger, for example.

But it is the cleverness of the illustrator that really shines through here. The child is an everychild – anonymous and gender-less, mainly seen from behind, or when straight on, with a body wrapped up against the cold, head-down. The city too is faceless – this could be any global metropolis.

The illustrations show Smith’s astuteness at perspective – the smallness of Small against the backdrop of skyscrapers, traffic, other people, construction works and telephone poles, even pointing towards the fact that taller adults might feel small against the enormity of the anonymous busy city. And with the search for something, there is an added dimension to the smallness, as if the loss of another can diminish a person and make them feel smaller anyway.

There are close ups, use of a wider lens, all capturing the intimidating nature of the city. This is not claustrophobic, but rather atmospheric. Dangers are implied rather than seen in desolate dark alleys. All angles are covered – looking up, looking down, looking out from a bus. Darkness is all around, and ever approaching as the day draws in – there are black shadows that dominate a vignette, stark plant shapes against a criss-cross window, an extreme close up of a traffic signal, mainly black in its squareness.

But conversely there’s an interesting growing familiarity with the city. Initially, the reader may feel as if the child might be lost – their smallness an indicator of their lack of direction, but this child demonstrates a knowledge of the city – as if they have been searching a long time or repeatedly, or perhaps it is their home town. Yet, the feeling of smallness persists – the city is held at a distance, the child is shut out. The church in which the choir practises is seen only from outside, the person who always plays the piano in the blue house is also anonymous, seen from behind, glimpsed blurrily through the window.

Even the reader is kept at a slight distance – there’s an amazing illustration of the child reflected in a series of mirrored glass panels on a building, the pastel traffic reflected behind, and a slight distortion of the image in the mirrors, the slight wobble that feels both real and haunting. More brilliance in the picture of the child on the bus; the close-up of a woman’s hand on the rail near the child, too close for comfort; the reflection of the city in the window of the bus, as well as the view through the bus to the city the other side, and the silhouettes of adults standing on the bus.

The day may start cold and sunny, but as the child moves through the pages, snow begins to fall. Now the picture blurs again as the streets are seen through increasing snow, red taillights standing out, sleet tyre marks on the road.

So then the illustrator’s detailed knowledge of the city appears – the child is shown positioning their back against the warmth exhalation of a dryer vent.

The text is shut off from the pictures – Small in the city is also alone in the city. Text appears only in the white gaps between the pictures, the illustrations themselves separate within hard black ink frames, locked apart from each other. There’s isolation here, and acute poignancy.

And yet there’s a juxtaposition between the griminess of the city, the urbanity of it, and the child’s calm pace and advice, and the peaceful hush as the snow falls. The lack of panic and anxiety, and the gentle determination of Small. As the blizzard blurs and the darkness increases, the heartfelt loss of the child is what’s felt, until towards the end there’s a glorious illustration of the child walking towards a female adult, with matching bobble hat signifying their kinship, and then Small’s confident resignation in the arms of a comforting adult.

The brilliance of course, is that although the book is about a missing pet, a child in a city, it’s also about the devastation of loss, the moments of waiting, the anticipation of return. Adults will see the emotional depth, young children will look for the pink posters, the hint of a cat, the draw of the city, and those in between will marvel at the detail in the artworks, the intelligence of the text. Most will notice the packaging of this tall book – a skyscraper itself.

Reassured, the final page gives a resolution, but the heartfelt haunting of this wintry book never quite dissipates. Exceptional. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Walker Books for the review copy

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

sofia valdezI have a soft spot for the Questioneers, the series of picture books that includes Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck and Ada Twist. They started a STEM revolution all of their own, and their now distinctive look, complete with graph paper background, is a constant presence in any good library or children’s bookcase.

With the latest in the series though, Beaty has captured the zeitgeist, deviating slightly from science and focussing on politics. Here, she points to the hope that children can provide, especially in the face of poor management and inept leadership by adults. With a nod to inclusivity and equal rights by both author and illustrator, Sofia Valdez’s first policies focus on the environment, namely waste management and green spaces.

Sofia is quite rightly disturbed by the landfill site in her neighbourhood, especially when she sees its dangers. She decides it’s time to replace it with a park for her community, but finds that facing city hall is harder than she thought. It takes determination and the support of her neighbours to see it through.

Of course there are repeating themes here from the former picture books on Rosie Revere and crew, including determination and putting in the hours, but there are new themes springing up all the time. Sofia walks to school with her Abuelo, and this cross-generational relationship is of the utmost importance. Moreover, bureaucracy reigns large at City Hall, and author Beaty and illustrator Roberts have both had great fun exploring the humour and ridiculousness of sprawling officialdom and red tape. Of course, the book rhymes, as per the rest of the series, and Beaty plays on the idea of having different departments in different rooms, with silly names and fun numbers.

The most galling aspect for Sofia is the clerk’s quick dismissal of her as ‘only a kid’. In our current times of Greta Thunberg, this is clearly highly ironic. Sofia doesn’t turn away from this, and in an insightful way asks the clerk what she would do if she were in Sofia’s shoes.

After a daunting presentation, a plethora of ideas, a march and a petition, surveys and budgets and more, Sofia’s dreams become a reality. Her diverse community receives a much-wanted green space.

This is a feel-good picture book. It demonstrates the power of the individual to make a difference, but also the power and meaning of a community. And it pulls together the strands of science and creativity – change is brought about only after an individual has a vision.

Beaty impressively keeps the tight rhythm and rhyme that gave her such success with her other picture books, and Roberts’ expressive illustrations add humour and bite to each scene. As well as the blatant message, and the plot-driven text, it’s worth a longer linger over the illustrations. Sofia’s bedroom betrays her character, the mountain of trash is telling in itself, but most of all the community is portrayed in all its glorious differences and similarities. Children will love spotting Rosie, Iggy and Ada. Definitely one to add to your collection. Who knows, books such as these may inspire a better calibre of leader in the future.

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

Vote Sofia Valdez, Future Prez here.

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

nevertellMany a children’s book has been set in a snowy landscape with chasing wolves and stretching vistas, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, promising the romance of ice crystals and the danger of snapping jaws. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about the punishing Siberian prison camps under the reign of Stalin, which is where Orton has chosen to set her debut children’s book, Nevertell.

Lina, born inside one of these Siberian prison camps, has never seen the outside world, so when the opportunity for escape is presented at age eleven, she grasps it wholeheartedly, despite having to leave her mother behind. However, Lina and best friend Bogdan are soon pursued not by Soviet guards, but by ghost wolf hounds and a dangerous sorceress, who lives in a Frozen-esque ice palace and bears a resemblance to Baba Yaga and The Mistress of Copper Mountain from Russian folk tales.

This is in essence an adventure story across the snowy tundra of a Russian winter, and Orton’s lyrical writing interweaves the magic of the landscape she is describing with the thrilling pace of a chase. Her descriptions of cold are indeed chilling, and the frozen fractals feel both dangerously icy but also wonderfully enchanting, as if the reader is spellbound by the cold as Lina and Bogdan are by the sorceress.

“The sky itself stretched cloudless and pale, like a flawless frozen lake. It all felt upside down, as if the sky had switched places with the earth while they slept and now they were wading through yesterday’s storm clouds.”

As well as the escape to freedom, Lina is on a quest to discover her heritage. She sets out on a path to Moscow to find her grandmother and discover what she is like, all the time wondering who in the left-behind camp is her father. What becomes apparent through the telling is the importance of family – both in their presence and their absence, and how belonging is so key. Separation was a cruel punishment oft inflicted by Stalin.

There are familiar children’s books tropes in Nevertell: a chase across countryside, a fierce and loyal friendship between the protagonist and a sidekick of the opposite gender…but where the novel stands apart is the terrific juxtaposition between the harshness of Russian gulags and Stalin’s reign with local folklore and fairy tales, which conjure a different kind of adventure story.

The idea that creativity was stifled in Stalin’s Russia, that a repressive regime sought to shut down any telling of fairy tales and folk stories is barbaric – after all freedom of thought and imagination are some of the most precious assets of being human. Orton plays with this idea of repression, and of course sets it free by taking Lina and Bogdan away from the harsh realism of a Siberian prison camp and placing them within the magical realms of a sorceress, even if that magic can also be used for harm.

Orton also plays on the importance of objects – again a device taken from native folk and fairy tales, in which one thing can be of such import – be it a house of chicken legs, or simply a stone. Lina wears a stone around her neck that provides pulsing warmth in times of great cold and throbbing heat in times of danger. The sorceress relies on her cape for much, but it is also in the human realm that objects are important: a winter coat, a bag of vegetables, a horse for transportation. These are essential elements of survival: food, warmth, shelter.

At times the magic is complex, at times simple, as are the relationships, but there’s a shining simplicity to the images of growth and gardens that frame Lina’s story. The idea of being able to conjure magic within a garden has been used for decades in children’s literature – a garden showing the flourishing of the heart and soul, the blossoming or growth of a forbidden fruit actually proving to be sustenance and food for thought rather than evil temptation. Orton sets up the magic vibrancy of fruit vines against a Siberian snowy backdrop and it is with strong images such as these that her power as a storyteller glitters most strongly.

The reader is left with an array of visuals – ice crystals frozen from wintry breath, a fluttering moth, a shadowy girl, an ice palace. With a startling cover illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, interior illustrative snowflakes and more, this is a winter read with staying power. You’ll be as enchanted as if you had been captured by a sorceress. A perfect wintry read. For ages 8+.

With thanks to Walker books for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina, illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya

the apartmentNot all good books have to be new ideas. Sometimes the brilliance is in the execution. When I first started working at Dorling Kindersley publishers, one of the big titles was A Street Through Time by Steve Noon, which time travels a street to the Roman times, through history to the industrial revolution and Victorian England. Recently a documentary series on the BBC showed a similar concept – A House Through Time – with historian David Olusoga painstakingly researching a single house through different eras.

So The Apartment is not unusual. Except that this oversize piece of non-fiction for children is exquisitely presented, with so much information and curiosity within its pages that it feels as if it were recreating the concept afresh.

The illustrations and text follow the story of a six-bedroom apartment in Moscow from 1902 to 2002, showing the reader not only who lives there and why, but also their personal stories, political changes and upheavals, and the cultural choices and developments that then rippled from Russia across the world. Events in Russia are documented and remarked upon first and foremost according to their impact on the inhabitants of this apartment, but there is also a wealth of extra material.

A double-page family tree opens the story. This large extended family features the inhabitants of the apartment, and also indicates which pages of the book each person appears on. This handy tool helps the reader to navigate, particularly when some of the names may be tricky for an English readership.

The book opens with Irina Muromtseva in 1902, a young child moving into the apartment with her family and their dog. The cutaway apartment shows the different rooms and belongings, with annotations to characters and objects. There’s a fictional feel to the narrative, a first person introduction citing smells and emotions, but there’s a non-fiction feel to the rest, documenting the type of belongings the family had, the technologies of the time, including here a hot tap, and the inhabitants’ professions and general way of life.

Interspersed between the generational page cutaways – in which the current child of the family gives their impression of what is happening – there are double pages that explain the historical and political landscape, and show the reader smaller illustrations of particular objects and scenarios – from speech bubble vignettes of political or philosophical conversations, to types of pens for letter-writing, tree ornaments for Christmas celebrations, types of money and even recipes. This broad spectrum highlights a whole life – the feelings about war and revolutions, about communism and leadership, but also about the day-to-day: from embroidered school collars to samovars and newspaper articles.

Further on, the apartment is split as more families move in and share the space. Then more lives are documented, and the apartment sees arrests, deaths, a wedding, the advent of a telephone and television, men in space. The text introduces terms such as glasnost and perestroika, documents Stalinism and the Thaw, right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

There are so many features in the book. There is of course an extensive glossary, timeline, bibliography and more. There’s a search and find game to see which objects survived how many years of change. But my favourite is the Afterword, explaining how much history and social history we glean from mere objects in everyday homes. And how for some of Russia’s history, there were things that could not be talked about. Could not be mentioned. And how books such as this can open these conversations.

We often say that to know who we are, we have to know where we came from. Our personal histories can provide a focus and explanation for how we see the outside world. And this book is a perfect example of how fiction and nonfiction can mesh and explore, can explain and provoke understanding. The text is dense, the pictures intricate, but it is a world waiting to be explored. All within one apartment.

With huge thanks to fellow children’s book blogger ReadItDaddy, without whom I would never have discovered this scintillating book. And proof therefore of the power of the children’s book blogger.

Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis. For curious children aged 9+ and curious adults. You can buy it here.

The Pearl in the Ice by Cathryn Constable

pearl in the iceSet in 1912 with an impending global conflict, twelve-year-old Marina is the daughter of a Naval Commander and a long-absent mother, so is often left on her own. The book opens with Marina up a plane tree in a leafy London suburb contemplating imminent boarding school. Yet, bound within Marina’s daydreaming and watery metaphors, is the inexorable pull of the sea, and before long Marina is swapping one train for another and heading to Portsmouth to stow away on her father’s ship.

But as with so many stories, all is not what it seems. In any way. This 1912 is a slightly alternate reality, with the enemy of the British the fictional Mordavians, and a battle over codes, transmitters and missing ships being waged near the fictional town of Svengejar near the very real Sea of Murmansk. By cleverly mixing reality with fiction, Constable creates a tangible landscape for her story, and makes sure that mentions of sea beasts and mermaids don’t feel as far removed as they should.

Much of the novel takes place aboard The Sea Witch, where Marina’s father is the captain. Discovered by the crew, Marina quickly earns her place on board, looking after the dogs who will eventually pull the sleds when the ship docks in the Arctic Circle. As well as painting an intriguing picture of life on board a ship, complete with sailors’ superstitions, roles and responsibilities, ropes and rigging, there’s also the tension of imminent war, codes and code-breaking, and the mysteriousness of her father’s real role in the conflict.

By basing her book half in reality and half not, Constable sets up some wonderful tension in her characters; the reader having to guess who is speaking the truth, and who not. Near the beginning, Marina makes fast friends on the train with a Miss Smith, whom she admires for her feminist outlook, her insistence that women are just as good as men. This modern sensibility takes a battering on the ship, where Marina is referred to as ‘Boy, 2nd class,’ as girls do not feature as seamen. But her respect and admiration for Miss Smith doggedly follow her through the story, and by the end her feminist beliefs are restored, although she learns that even the bravest feminist can be on the wrong side.

The main tension in the book though, is not Marina’s seafaring adventure, or the end quest to save her father, but more her understanding of where fantasy meets reality, and the true understanding of why her mother disappeared. This is most clearly borne out in the very frightening and gripping dream/memory sequence at the end of chapter three, as Marina’s earliest memory seems to be that of being nearly drowned in the bath. From this sprout ongoing hints as to who Marina’s mother really is. By the end, the book’s plot – filled with double lives, spies, and codes – bends to encompass a fantasy realm too.

For readers of this age group, there is solace to be found in reading of a girl’s search for greater independence, not just in knowing who she is and where she comes from, but mainly in where she is going as she makes the leap from childhood to adulthood, understanding the premise that not all adults are to be believed and that challenging them can reap its own rewards.

This is a far from watery novel – in fact like the dark shape that follows Marina’s quest across the seas – it has real bite. The characters are well-formed – Miss Smith rather glamorously reminiscent of shades of Mrs Coulter – and the messages behind the story strong and well thought-out. But it is the imagery of the sea and what lies beneath that leaves lingering visions in the mind: the power of a storm, the surging dance of the waves, and the ever-changing colours of the water above the darkness below.

For 9+ years.

With thanks to Nina Douglas and Chicken House publishers for my review copy. Catch up with the rest of the blog tour below. And you can buy your own copy here.

Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps by Tim Marshall, illustrated by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith

prisoners of geographyThere’s much book reading in my house. But my husband is the one who consumes the most non-fiction: a range of topics from tech, feminism, history, sociology and more. One day a few years ago, he came in from his commute raving about his latest read – an intriguing look at our world called Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. And although the ideas in the book are set out with supreme clarity, it was never going to make it onto my nine year old’s bedside reading pile.

And then, to my huge delight, Simon and Schuster advertised the fact that, with Tim Marshall, they were publishing a children’s version. And it’s now available from all good bookshops.

This book magnificently stretches across the curriculum, pulling together geography and history to explain why countries might act aggressively towards others, where the world’s resources lie, why borders and access to seas are so important, and how our human expansion across the globe has precipitated wars and hostility, peace and collaboration. An introduction and explanation of geopolitics for children.

The maps aren’t to scale but that’s not what they’re for in this book. In fact, some of the ideas of the maps work better when toyed with – one of the most intriguing maps in the book is ‘the true size of Africa,’ in which Marshall, Easton and Smith illustrate the actual size of the continent, cleverly fitting other countries into its space for relativity.

With other maps the idea is to offer a fresh perspective on their use and influence – a range of mountains may look pretty, but it also provides a barrier from one region to another, sometimes useful and sometimes not. Large coastlines may prove useful for trade but difficult for security. Huge resources may grow a country’s wealth, but leave it vulnerable to exploitation.

Marshall writes and explains these issues with lucidity and a greatly assured calmness. The text is accessible and coherent, even when dissecting the thorniest political moves. And in short chunks or paragraphs surrounded by numerous illustrations, so that the brain is kept busy, engaged, and informed.

The book deals with all major areas of the globe region by region, starting with Russia, and moving on through China, USA, Canada, Europe, Africa and beyond, looking at their geology and how this affects politics and economics. There’s a great caveat at the start of the book explaining how this book contains abridged ideas from the adult version and can’t cover everything, and for me, it worked in covering the major geopolitical issues of our time, (even though the paragraph on the reasons for European cohesion may make some Remainers wince in acknowledgement). This is, after all, a point of view rather than an out-and-out fact book.

This Illustrated children’s version adds a simplicity and accessibility to Marshall’s prose explanation. Each map has small graphics depicting major symbols and landmarks, such as The Great Wall of China, the Mojave Desert, the Amazon Rainforest, while the prose and captions explore why these are significant both geographically and politically. Rather marvellously, our understanding of the USA as a global superpower is illustrated by a map of military bases across the world, as well as the geography of its own country. And as well as maps, there are large full page illustrations to highlight key distinctive factors of a region. Africa is beautifully portrayed with a thriving city as an example, as well as a stunning illustration of the Victoria Falls. But there are smaller vignettes too – Europe’s industrial revolution, China’s navy.

Every page holds interest and provokes thought. Of course there are territorial lines, disputed areas, gas pipelines, oil refineries, raging waterfalls that hinder transport, and a dissection of how crucial pathways were opened up – the Panama Canal, the Northwest Passage.

Country names are written across the map in a kind of handwriting scrawl typeface which makes the image feel familiar and personal, and this touch matches the prose, which reads as if it is written by a great storyteller – slotting into that narrative non-fiction genre, which is so popular. The informality of the chosen typeface for place-names also emphasises the somewhat arbitrary nature of the countries – borders and names often imposed by faraway strangers, particularly in the case of Africa and the Middle East.

Marshall highlights the incredible importance of transport, from rivers to access to seas and therefore global trade, as well as land rich in resources and land fertile for farming. These are all things that are and will be affected by climate change, and the impact is there to see – floodplains and regions hit by fires, melting polar ice and more. But also, by pointing to these land attributes, Marshall pinpoints the geographical ties that bind humanity despite any cultural differences. We all need food, shelter, security, community and trade, and that’s why the world we inhabit is both small and large, and such a topic of massive import.

Why is Tibet important? Why is Bangladesh poor? Why is America a superpower?

This is one of the most important children’s books published in the past few years. Buy your curious children a copy, and entreat them to try to understand others. It’s a definitive tome for how we think about the world, and will open up their compassion to people from around the world – why we move where we move, how we use the world’s resources, and an insight into how the world’s geography might change with climate change and how we might have to adapt because of it. Fascinating, educational, vital reading.

With huge thanks to Simon and Schuster for the early review copy. Credit also to adapters Emily Hawkins and Pippa Crane.

Buy your own copy here.

FloodWorld by Tom Huddleston, illustrated by Jensine Eckhall

floodworldDo you ever debate with your friends where you would flee to live if you had to? Maybe because I’m of Jewish descent, this is a question that comes up every now and then. Recently, I explained to someone that this could actually be a pertinent question for many of us, seeing as how the sea levels are rising, and habitable areas of the world will be flooded if climate change continues on track.

Tom Huddleston has taken this idea and run with it in his futuristic dystopian children’s novel, FloodWorld, which opens in a future London in which the rich area is divided from the poorer area by a wall, and most of the poorer area is under water, with residences on floating barges or the upper floors of tall buildings – known as the Shanties.

Kara and Joe live in these Shanties, where Joe makes salvage dives for artefacts long since abandoned in flooded waters, in order to earn a meagre living selling them to crooks. When Joe has a near miss with a Mariner (a supposed terrorist or pirate), who crashes his jetski near him, Joe ends up in possession of a cryptic map, and Kara and Joe become wanted persons – ensconced in a world of criminality, gangsters and corruption.

Initially, scenes of destitute children, a general lack of welfare state, and intense poverty feels increasingly Dickensian, especially as Joe dives for a Fagin-esque type figure called Mr Colpeper, whose dodgy morals ensure the reader isn’t quite sure whose side he’s on. But as the novel progresses, the quickness of scene changes, the escalating tension, numerous cliff-hangers and fast-moving scenes of chases across and under water, bombs, shoot-outs and more, nods more to our modern age of Bond and Alex Rider than to the past.

In fact, our present is more than once referred to as the recent past. With inspiration, wit and an eye for detail, Huddleston has his characters frequently refer back to the Tech Age (our own era), in which there were trains, democracy and cinemas, and everyone was out for themselves. More often than not the characters aren’t sure about these relics from the past – things have become distorted over time, such as references to Olive Twits, and one great scene in which the children stumble across submersibles called Dory and Marlin, and can’t work out why they are named so.

Huddleston’s talent lies in his filmic awareness – he is, after all, a film reviewer. Not only is the landscape believable and highly visual – with floating towns, a deserted flooded world of underground stations and more, but the scenes zip from one thing to the next, the camera zooming in and out and from set to set, with constant thrills – low-level warfare, high-tech submarines and more. The illustrated map helps, and is a delight, but even without, the landscape glows with well-crafted other worldliness that is embedded in familiarity.

Frequent nods to wry humour win favour from the reader. In this brave new world, Canada welcomes any child refugee, Huddleston finds a new use for computer tablets, and a series of climactic endings one after the other give a fine wink to the movie industry.

Without good characterisation though, a thriller is just a shell. Here, Kara feels like a protective older sister to Joe – like a Carrie to Nick from Carrie’s War, and yet, as any protagonist, she’s flawed. Determined and fierce but hot-headed too. Joe is calmer, using his skills of observation, and he brings a sense of nuance to the plot, and together they make a perfect duo.

In the end, Huddleston goes full youth warrior, inspired by the passion of today’s #climatestrikesforschools message as Kara channels her inner Greta Thunberg by speaking truth to power. In his stretched-out ending, Huddleston suggests that a better world can exist through human cooperation, equality and justice, but there’s a long way to go – not only do the kids have to work out which authority is trustworthy (if any), but also how to stop society breaking down and following the same corrupt patterns over and again.

Recommended for ages 10+ according to the publisher, but avid fans of Alex Rider from about 9+ could handle the violence depicted here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

Chessboxer by Stephen Davies

chessboxerThere’s something special about being recommended a book by one’s own children, and this is one such novel. My daughter pressed this into my hands, despite neither knowing how to box, nor play chess, although I reckon she’d be great at both.

I can see why she liked it. This scintillating book pulses with energy. Chessboxer pounds with the punch of a boxer, and yet remains contemplative, with ideas behind the fast-paced plot as thoughtful as a chess player.

Leah Baxter is the quintessential feisty protagonist. She’s a chess whizz, just a few wins away from being heralded a junior chess grandmaster, and yet she’s lost in life…not just over grief for her father, but also in her chosen field – she’s not quite sure that chess is for her.

Davies introduces the spikiness of this seventeen-year-old straight away, as the story is told in a series of Leah’s blogposts. At first, these are public, and with them comes the inevitable array of comments, to which Leah replies with snarky sarcasm and a growing hostility.

After an encounter with one such commenter face to face, Leah turns her blog private, and the comments disappear, but her thoughts remain loud and clear for the reader to see. Davies has a firm grip on character – Leah treads the trembling tightrope between adolescence and adulthood, often making impetuous decisions, sometimes leaning towards self-destructive behaviour, and always with a firm eye on her obsessive nature regarding her passion.

Through the over-curious commenter on the blog, who turns out to be less stalker and more friend, Leah discovers new passions in life, including chessboxing. This strange hybrid sport blends bouts of boxing with rounds of chess, mixing the highly physical with the highly intellectual, and challenging Leah’s strategic thinking. Of course, the reader sees that the boxing is great physical therapy for Leah in the midst of her grief, which doesn’t seem to have been dealt with previously, but the amount of violence may be shocking for some younger readers.

What draws the reader in is the amount of grit, determination and resilience demonstrated by Leah, yet also her capacity for making impetuous and wrong decisions. And although her anger can be alienating at times, the reader stays the course with her, sees her processing the world, finding a way to trust people, and in the end her goodness shines through.

Her new hobby of chessboxing lends itself well to a build up of anticipation throughout the novel, honing a new skill, learning new tactics, and of course being tested time and time again. Davies holds this together well, drawing from extensive research, and also carefully plotting his novel, as tightly as the footwork of a boxer, neat and balanced, keeping the reader on their toes.

The setting is almost another character in the book – the streets of New York throb with an equal energy to Leah, from the green spaces to the donut shops, and even the local police station. Davies has a way of navigating the streets without resorting to description, but just strewing objects and places throughout the text – Washington Square, the fire escapes, tattoo parlours.

This is a novel with a delicate strength, a snarky protagonist, and an interesting presentation of prose. It made me think of that other recent YA with its angry girl protagonist, Furious Thing, featured just a couple of weeks ago on MinervaReads.

With our world as it is, we need lots of these intelligent and angry girls – those with drive and passion, with complexity that feeds their anger but can also quell it, and above all, with their hearts and minds in the right place. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Andersen Press for the advance review copy. A suggested teen read.

The Tzar’s Curious Runaways by Robin Scott-Elliot

tzars curious runawaysEarly on in this historical novel, author Scott-Elliot introduces a footnote to a particular scene that simply says, ‘This really happened at the court of Peter the Great’. This tempting piece of information follows the reader throughout this startling novel – did that really happen, could that really have happened, stimulating both interest in the story, but also great intrigue in the historical setting. The reader is bursting to know more.

Good historical fiction not only holds a mirror up to our own times, pointing to similarities, and lessons learned or unlearned, but it also encourages the reader to think more about that period of history and entice them to discover more about it. Scott-Elliot does both these in his first novel for children, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.

Katinka is a ballerina with a hunchback, part of a collection of people in Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities, his Kunstkamera. (The Tzar was particularly interested in deformities, collecting specimens and people (such as dwarfs, giants, hunchbacks and more) as a way to dispel myths that ‘monsters’ and monstrous formations came from the devil. He frequently put them on display and used them as tools for humiliation and cruelty.) On his death, Katinka and the other ‘curiosities’ are to be killed on the orders of the even nastier Tzarina. Together with her friends Alexei the Giant and Nikolai the dwarf, Katinka escapes the palace in St Petersburg and sets off across the snowy Russian steppe to find her parents, from whom she believes she was snatched by the Tzar’s henchmen.

This is, of course, an adventure story as journey, and therefore one of a tide of children’s novels that fits this description. What sets The Tzar’s Curious Runaways apart is not only the historical and geographical setting of 1725 Russia, but most particularly the intense suspense and danger conjured by a plot unfolding in an immensely cruel, violent and unforgiving society.

This Russia is a place of fear: The court around the Tzar, all in fear of being humiliated or worse, being killed; the peasants in surrounding areas fearful of any change or anything different; humans in general scared of wolves and bears and the darker side of nature. And in every facet of this society, Scott-Elliot describes those in power or holding authority as being corrupt, greedy or just cruel, from the adults in the village to the monks in an onion-turreted church, who of course, should provide the moral code. This is a poverty-stricken and cruel society – scenes include prisoners in chains being made to work on The Grand Canal, fearful adults throwing rocks at mere children.

Beauty, in this book, lies both in the endless snowy steppe and the mountains that take the form of animals, but also in children – their innocence, their bravery, their self-belief, and their hope.

Although the book is hugely scenic, with its dense forests, ornate palaces and snowy landscapes, and the plot reliant upon a magical map, this is a story about personalities overriding visuals, about not being judged for one’s physical imperfections, but rather using them to advantage, or overcoming their adversity.

In this way, the book shines a light on our current times – about the possibilities offered in a diverse society and about how people shouldn’t discriminate based on looks or beliefs. Of course our current society isn’t utopia, and has a long way to go for acceptance and tolerance to reign, particularly with regards to minorities, those with disabilities, and even women. But, if anything, Scott-Elliot shows us how far we’ve come.

Despite its use of historical research, this is still a novel, and Scott-Elliot cleverly draws attention to our understanding of history and the past by muddling Katinka’s memories of home. She is a protagonist seeking to belong, seeking a home, and yet her memories of the past are hazy – she isn’t sure whether they’re derived from her actual childhood surroundings, or from story books. And so the novel asks the question: what memories and histories of the past can be trusted? How much are we fabricating and filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge?

Into this mix, Scott-Elliot throws a wise librarian named Johann Daniel, who imparts a great deal of survival knowledge to the children and also gifts them a magical map to guide them on their journey. This light relief from the cruelty and harshness around them gives the children and the reader hope. It is with magic and story that a happy ending can be reached, despite the tribulations on the way.

For those who enjoy historical novels, this is something a little different, a curiosity in the children’s literature canon. You’d be wise not to run away from it.

With thanks to Everything With Words for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here. Suggested for ages 8+.

Frostheart by Jamie Littler

frostheartWith exquisite artworks to match the finely tuned world-building, illustrator turned author Jamie Littler has written a captivating fantasy adventure.

Ash is a Song-Weaver, a boy with a powerful ability to tame the monsters that lurk in the Snow Sea, the vast tundra that surrounds the human-kin stronghold in which he lives. But he doesn’t fully understand his power, and nor do the other human-kin, choosing to shun him for his ability.

When the book opens, Ash is waiting for the return of his parents, who left the stronghold many years before. All he has to remember them by is a lullaby, although this too he doesn’t fully understand. When Ash uses his song to calm the monsters as visitors approach the stronghold, the rest of the human-kin are scared, and they exile him along with his guardian, a grumpy Yeti called Tobu. Ash and Tobu leave with the visitors on their sleigh, the Frostheart, set to traverse the snowy tundra in order to find Ash’s parents and solve the mystery of the left-behind lullaby.

In a nod to time-honoured explorer adventures, the crew of the Frostheart together with Tobu and Ash visit many strongholds, all separated by the Snow Sea, and in each stronghold discover a different kind of tribe, some human-kin, others not, such as the Vulpis (small fox-like creatures who like shiny things). This Gulliver’s Travels-esque set up provides much momentum and intrigue across the book, but at the same time the reader, with Ash, is grappling with Ash’s own individual mystery – how to solve the riddle of the lullaby and the whereabouts of his parents.

Along with these questions, comes the question of the motive of the other members of the Frostheart crew, such as the captain (a wooden-legged walrus), Lunah, a young girl mapping the undiscovered world, who soon becomes a close friend for Ash, and the shadowy Shaard, a knowledge-hunter looking for clues from the World Before.

Littler uses classic tropes in his fantasy adventure, from the role of the protagonist Ash as an outsider, to his mentor and teacher Tobu, who appears grumpy and sets Ash repetitive tasks, but actually holds and gives intense wisdom. In this way, he reminded me so much of Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid films. But because Littler has built such an extraordinary new world, these tropes are welcome as familiar signposts in an unfamiliar landscape.

Themes of friendship and family and belonging pervade the entire story, as Ash seeks his heritage and his true clan, all the while learning to be part of a team with the Frostheart crew, and finding true friendship with Lunah.

Littler’s clever use of song, positing Ash as a Songweaver with unexplored powers, points to the power of creativity and the creative arts, something that seems to get a little lost in education today, and the power of song gets Ash into trouble, but also proves to be a solace and salvation, as well as a way into his emotional well-being.

The other intensely creative element across the book is Littler’s illustrations, which almost spill into graphic novel territory – there are so many and they are so intricate. They delineate the characters, both complementing and going further than the text, and in some cases are hugely humorous.

The book is so punctuated by these illustrations that it helps the reader along the voyage – this is a lengthy adventure for the age group. However, it is always packed with action and onwards momentum, with numerous dangers, and interesting technologies, using a mixture of age-old weaponry such as bows and arrows, but also solar polar in the sunstones.

There’s an innate pull to nature too – the power of fire and light, the bleakness and intensity of cold and snow.

Yet, what remains strongest is the characterisation of Ash. His vulnerability makes him endearing, and Littler has a good eye for compassion and when to pull at the reader’s heartstrings. In fact, with his sublimely executed illustrations, and his well-constructed other world, this awesome adventure won’t leave any reader with a frosty heart. The only problem is that it does leave them hanging – the ending points thoroughly towards the sequel, and threads are left untied.

Look out too for the gorgeous production – the book has a die-cut foil cover, and Waterstones are selling a special edition with sprayed edges. For ages 9-12 years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Puffin for a review copy.