Book of the Week

Famous Family Trees by Kari Hauge, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger

famous family treesResearch seems to indicate that children who have a strong family narrative, who are in touch with their roots, have better emotional health. Knowledge of this ancestral past seems to give children a grounding, a sense of control, and an ability to understand how their family functions. (Fivush and Duke, Emory U, Atlanta). I’ve written about this before when reviewing books that allow a child to explore their own family history, learning their genealogy but also understanding the environment in which their parents, and grandparents, and ancestors grew up. The combination of nature and nurture.

But what about if you could find out about a famous person’s family tree? What further insights could it give you to that person? Perhaps they were an only child, or had a famous parent, or an influential cousin? This fascinating, and rather beautiful book, aims to show some of the history and nature and nurture of famous individuals. These are biographies conveyed in a unique way, and of course the attraction of laying out each personality within their family tree also gives the book its own pretty aesthetic.

There are over 30 family trees portrayed in the book, including the Brontes, Shakespeare and Ghengis Khan, as the book explores both famous and infamous lives. The family trees not only explore the relatives or ancestry, and in some cases descendants of the person, but also the time in which they lived, the history and circumstances.

Depending on the person, the family tree highlights different branches. So for example, Mozart is shown in relation to his parents and siblings, and yet his wife’s family is also portrayed – with parents and siblings. Abraham Lincoln is shown only within the context of his own family, from his grandparents to his last direct descendant. The authors of the book have been clever here, showing the reader the most interesting lives and stories within each family.

Every famous person is afforded a couple of paragraphs about themselves as well, and also background to the time in which they lived and other small details. In the crowded pages about Charles Dickens, the reader learns about his family, but also how his books were published as instalments in newspapers, the debtors’ prison, and much more. Ada Lovelace’s complicated family history is extrapolated in the ways in which Byron was associated with so many of her relatives, but the page also explores the influence of Ada’s mother and grandmother on her, and side details on the analytical engine.

Anyone who’s ever attempted to draw their own family tree will recognise how difficult it is to lay it out, and how complicated it can get. Mildenberger does a fine job of fitting the complex relationships onto a page without it ever feeling too squashy – despite the number of children people tended to have many years ago! Each character isn’t just named, but is drawn as a small portrait, and this itself is fascinating – including hairstyles, hats and clothes. The illustrations feel folksy and old-worldly and the illustrator is particularly adept at making each family look distinct, but the characters within one family share similar traits. Clever and humorous.

For those who aren’t familiar with family trees, there is an introductory spread on how family trees work and the symbols. The book includes profiles on Mary Shelley, Queen Elizabeth I, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, William Shakespeare, Catherine the Great, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and many more. A fascinating way to look at biographies. You can buy it here.

Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway

unicorn girlThere is a Year 1 girl in my library club who is obsessed with unicorns. She can recall every book in my library that features a unicorn (and not just on the cover). So, in a few years’ time, she’ll delight in reading Unicorn Girl by Anne-Marie Conway.

Not many children’s books start with a funeral, but when Ariella’s grandma dies she not only leaves her with a sense of sadness, but also a unicorn charm. Days later, Ariella spies a real unicorn in the empty field at the back of the house. The unicorn proves useful in helping Ariella with her feelings of grief, as well as with her worries about her baby brother who is born with a hole in his heart, and settling in at her new school – which is proving more difficult than she thought, especially when one of the girls, Belinda, starts picking on her for her size (Ariella is small for her age).

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we all had a unicorn to deal with our anxieties? This novel from the award-winning author of Butterfly Summer captures its readership with its authenticity – despite the book venturing into magical realism with the appearance of a unicorn. Conway works as a drama teacher, and her knowledge of schools and how they operate today is plainly apparent and lends the book a huge dose of realism. The lessons, the teachers, and the pupils feel more real than many depictions in the children’s books I read – even down to the minute details of topics learned, the impact of a good teaching assistant on children who are struggling, and the ability of children to perform actions unseen by staff, no matter how diligent the teachers.

Many of today’s children are consumed with worries, observing the stresses of their parents, absorbing the changing attitude of older teen siblings, and struggling to navigate through the landscape of friendships. Conway piles worries on Ariella, but the book never feels too sad – there are shimmers of hope in kind supportive adults, and also of course in the introduction of the unicorn and its magic. Conway is clever here too, giving the unicorn its own backstory, and applying scruffy characteristics to it, so that by the reveal at the end, it becomes very clear to the reader what’s going on. The unicorn brings not only a sense of wonder and possibility, but also a calm space in which Ariella can breathe and contemplate.

Conway’s prose is absorbing and readable, and she touches on difficult themes with a sensitive and emotionally intelligent eye, observing not only the realism of schools, but also a keen understanding of a family under stress, and the dynamics of how each member of the family deals with the emotional upheaval, before finally coming together.

What’s particularly heart-warming is the way in which the book has been published. Anne-Marie Conway had finished her draft of the book, in which Ariella finds incredible solace in a particular unicorn book she finds in a hospital library, when she was approached to raise some money to build a new school library at her child’s school.  Now,  profits from Conway’s published book are being donated to building that new school library for her local school. You can click on the link here to see the fundraising project, and here to buy a copy of the book.

Maps of the United Kingdom by Rachel Dixon, illustrated by Livi Gosling

maps of the united kingdomWhen I was in primary school we had to memorise the countries and capital cities of South America. For a long time many of these were retained in my memory, and even now I’m better at that continent’s geography than Europe. What’s even worse, to my shame, is my lack of knowledge about the geography of my own country, the United Kingdom. And as I watch my children go through school, I realise that it’s something that just isn’t taught. Thankfully, one of them can pinpoint where cities are situated (this is because he knows them from their football clubs), but we are all clueless about counties.

All that’s about to change. Maps of the United Kingdom does exactly what it says on the cover, and although the illustrations seem at first glance to be fairly random – a red post box planted between Devon and Somerset, a hedgehog somewhere between Perth and Kinross and the Highlands – there is both enthusiasm and geographical symbolism behind the illustrations, and the drawings are actually an excellent visual guide to help readers learn and memorise the counties and cities of the United Kingdom.

Divided, as to be expected, between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and then further delineated by county lines – either featuring one large county or several smaller ones – the full page spreads show the geographical placement of the area, and then proceeds to illustrate history, nature, people and scientific breakthroughs originating in the region. The information chosen is specific and well-written, but in such a way that it shouldn’t date. This is both clever and interesting.

Lancashire focusses firstly on Blackpool, illustrated by its tower, but then pulls away to showcase the mill towns and the countryside. Local food plays its part, as does sport, highlighting Lancashire County Cricket Club on the map, but then also drawing a portrait of Andrew Flintoff as one of the regional biographies. Other Lancashire biographies include current personalities such as Brian Cox, but also historical activists such as Edith Rigby. There is information about wildlife and history and suggestions of places to visit to learn more, (the Pendle Witch trials at the Pendle Heritage Centre). For ease of use, each page has the entire map of the UK in one corner with the focus place shown by its county border.

All this means that as well as learning the geography, there is an abundance of trivia to absorb, and seven biographies on each page. Each map is colourful too – a different colour for each county as a background and full colour illustrations laid over the top. The small illustrations are intricate and distinctive, so that the reader can smile at the hands raised by the children on the theme park rollercoaster in Derbyshire, but also see the details in the clothing worn by Elizabeth Gaskell. The buildings too are distinctive – the Pierhead Building in Cardiff with its clock tower to the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey in The Valleys.

As we divorce from Europe, now might be a particularly good time to become schooled in our local heritage and traditions, and celebrate the people who’ve made Great Britain great. If all this sounds a bit Trumpish and isolationist, it is perhaps only through knowing ourselves that we can seek to understand others. Once you’ve mastered the lay of the land in this book, you’ll be keen to explore Europe and beyond. I know I am. (The maps in the book aren’t to scale, so it’d be wise to consult a proper atlas before leaping from London to Lincoln.)

Written by a travel writer, this is an excellent classroom and home resource, a smashing Christmas present, and suitable for all from about 6 years. You can buy it here.

Timelines of Everything

timelines of everything

It seems fitting during National Non-Fiction November to feature a book that attempts to cover everything. As one would expect from Dorling Kindersley, this is a highly visual non-fiction title, over 300 pages long with an extraordinary number of images. The book explores the history of the world in a series of illustrated timelines on ‘everything’, including slavery in the US, the technology of writing, the industrial revolution, kingdoms of Southeast Asia, postcolonial Africa and much much more.

As well as general knowledge, dates, and small explanations of well-known events, there are tiny nuggets of trivia embedded in each page, so that the reader comes away having learnt that the Medieval period lasted from the 5th to the 15th centuries and followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and that the majority of the population in Medieval Europe was comprised of peasant farmers, but also lesser-known trivia during the period, including that the Vikings founded Dublin in 841. The timeline on this page traverses neatly between religious re-organisation and acts of battle and aggression, spanning from the East-West Schism in the church in 1054 to the Battle of Hastings, to the Hundred Years’ War, to the to the Gutenberg Bible printing in around 1439. Reading about the Hanseatic League and their trading alliance in 1241 felt relevant to today’s Brexit deals.


But it’s not the text information in the book that inspires, so much as the magnificence of the presentation. Each subject is afforded an apt graphic design. The Renaissance is laid out like a fresco between classical pillars. The Timeline of Exploration of the world features dates running up a ship’s mast, Spanish America is encapsulated within a series of silver coins, and Astronomy casts its own constellation across the page. The timelines are also broken up by pages in between – some full colour-paintings including that of the fall of Tenochtitlan, some that document a single day such as the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

The reader can read through in chronological order as set out in the book – traversing prehistory, the dinosaurs and the wheel, before entering the ancient World, Medieval, the Age of Exploration, Revolution and then the Modern World, or simply dip in and out depending on mood and interest. One great fun thing to do is to test fellow family members with the dates of when things happened, flicking through the book at random.

The text is accessible, concise, and clear. There are no opinions here, no injected humour, just straightforward precise information. Of course, the whole of human history can’t be condensed into one book, so there are omissions and much is touched on in scant detail, but it provides a context for what’s going on, and a springboard for further discovery. This way, history can be looked at with a wide lens, and then an intrigued child will be able to hone in on what piques their interest and opt for a more specialist look at the subject.

To settle arguments and answer quizzes, this is a winner. I liked the roll call of British royalty and American presidents at the end – yes, the book is skewed towards a Western audience for sure – and thoroughly enjoyed the quick romp through choice moments to explore the Story of Democracy. I learned much about the Rise of the Samurai and the horror of Plagues and Epidemics. For a spread-eagled timeline view of the world – this is a wonderful visual treat. You can buy it here.

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl (Book Three of the Cogheart Series)

skycircusWhen I was reading Skycircus, I couldn’t help but think of The Greatest Showman. The success of that film wasn’t down to critics, who panned the movie on its opening weekend, and I went to see it (somewhat reluctantly and with low expectations) with the children, and now own both the DVD and the soundtrack and secretly play them when the children are at school. Is it the music, or is it perhaps the emotions that circuses inspire that proved it such a great success?

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely upon PT Barnum, remembered for his travelling circus. Ironically the film sets out to show acceptance of difference, despite Barnum being known for his exploitation and sometime racism.

Circuses have long been a source of inspiration and imagination for novelists. Many children’s book characters visit the circus at least once in their series – Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Doctor Doolittle, Claude, Paddington Bear all went to the circus, and some of my favourite stand-alone literature is set in the circus – The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

The circus arena is a great site for storytelling. As with theatre there’s the theme of appearance and reality, what’s hidden behind masks and costumes, but the circus also brings a daredevil nature to the stage – acts that seem impossible, daring and courage, excitement and danger. And an inherent subversive nature. Whether it’s the people behind the circus – seen for such a long time as ‘other’ – or the arguments over mistreatment of animals in the arena, the dichotomy of both providing entertainment but also making money, and the long history and argument of exploitative acts versus acts celebrating freedoms.

Peter Bunzl had already incorporated elements of this into his Victoriana steampunk series that  begins with Cogheart, an adventure story that subverts history and science, featuring mechanimals, penny dreadfuls, clocks and cogs, the author supposing that mechanicals were more advanced than they really were – that humans had reached a scientific equivalent to robots and AI but without computing leading the way – instead using mechanical parts.

Skycircus, the third in Bunzl’s Cogheart series, transports the characters from Cogheart – Lily, her mechanimal fox Malkin and her human friend Robert into a circus adventure. With the energy and tone of the prior books, it adds to the atmosphere a circus in which the people are treated more as prisoners, and circus acts that fuse the mechanical with the derring-do of trapeze acts and escape artists.

On Lily’s fourteenth birthday, she receives a cryptic poem inviting her to a travelling skycircus, arrived in the locale. Not being able to resist the clues, she sets off to watch the acts, little failing to realise that it’s a trap and that before long she’ll no longer be the observer in the audience, but the headline act herself.

With references to the past books, and Lily’s own past creeping forwards to haunt her, the book works both as a stand-alone read but also a continuation of the series. Never shy with words, the book is meaty and dense – an imagined world full of science and steampunk and its accompanying vocabulary.

With a keen nod to today’s preoccupations of gender stereotyping (a plot twist for which I fell cog, sprocket and gear), and liberally littered with allusions to Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the leading thinkers of the time in which it’s set, this is a layered book with much to extrapolate. Of course, there’s much about exploitation, and of animals too, but mainly about how we see others who may seem different from us; whether it’s a seen physical manifestation (perhaps race or a disability), or whether its just about seeing things from another’s point of view. Whom do you trust and how far can science take us?

Despite all this, at its heart this is a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story. I particularly enjoy Bunzl’s small touches of humour and detail that imbue each story with depth of character and charm. The clown who speaks in spoonerisms in Skycircus, the magnificent understanding of the rolling out of the circus, and the allusions to ancient myths and the power of storytelling itself.

This is a grand book with a plot as tense as tiptoeing the tightrope, and bold narration that shouts as loudly as the red and white stripes of the circus tent. You can run away to your own circus here.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Aaron Renier

the liftersMany of my test readers adore short chapters in their children’s fiction. It might be because they are reluctant readers and getting through the chapters feels like an achievable accomplishment. Or perhaps because they enjoy the cliff edges in the chapter cliffhanger endings, or simply because they can easily find a place to stop at lights out.

The Lifters by Dave Eggers has one hundred and thirteen chapters – not because it’s War and Peace for kids, but rather because most of the chapters are only a couple of pages long. Brief they may be, but they certainly contain a depth of metaphor.

Like many books for children this age, the main character’s story begins when his family move house to a new town. However, unlike anyone else, this boy is called Granite Flowerpetal, which he shortens to Gran as he starts his life afresh in the town called Carousel.

Life isn’t everything he and his parents had hoped in the new town. Gran is not teased at school, more ignored than anything, and his father fails to find the work he hoped would materialise in the new town. Instead, he travels miles away, leaving Gran, his sister and their wheelchair-bound mother.

Not long after they arrive, houses and buildings in Carousel start disappearing into massive sink-holes, and it turns out to be no coincidence when Gran follows a girl into a series of hidden underground tunnels, in which children called Lifters prop up the foundations of their towns.

The metaphor is blatant, but cleverly written. The town, particularly this kind of traditional manufacturing town, is literally sinking or collapsing because of the depth of misery and disheartened thinking, and it’s only the hope for the future (represented by the children) than can help to lift it again.

Granite, named for strength, turns out to be stronger than he thought, and Catalina, the girl who at first had questioned his moniker: “Don’t you realise Gran sounds like you’re a grandmother?” turns out to appreciate his company, especially after he proves his worth in the tunnels.

Although this was written before Trump became President, Eggers skilfully picks up on the US rust belt towns’ feeling of hopelessness: Carousel is a fictional town that was famous for making carousels, but has fallen victim to the new thrill seekers who prefer rollercoasters.

This is no rollercoaster of a novel – it’s more an extended metaphor with plenty of critique of the times in which we live. Adults come across quite badly – they cannot cope with conflict and tend to avoid trying to see another’s point of view at all. When part of the school falls in, the teachers act as if the sinkhole is inevitable and offer counselling to the children by way of individual cubicles and a psychology examination by an automaton on screen.

But although the responsibility for healing the community falls squarely onto the children’s shoulders, there is enough humour to lift the reader’s spirits, and plenty of great writing that keeps the reader turning the page, especially the little universal truths interjected by the writer. Away from the despondency and overplayed metaphor, I really rather enjoyed it. A good choice for older primary school readers looking for meaning behind a story. You can buy it here.

Peter Pan by JM Barrie, retold in rhyme by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

Peter PanI have a confession to make. I decided to read the worthy classic Peter Pan by JM Barrie to my first child at bedtime one year and picked out an exceptionally beautiful edition of the original. And yet a few pages in, I found myself précising the text, rewording it, changing sentences and skipping bits – the prose just wasn’t as captivating as I thought it should be. It had all the elements in the plot – removable shadows, pirates with hooks, crocodiles with clocks and fairies with attitude, yet it didn’t zing along.

So when this latest version came through the post, I wished that it had arrived years earlier, but settled for reading it to the youngest child instead. What a delight. Hart has used her extensive experience in rhyming picture books to retell the story in her own energetic style, and it is a joy to read aloud:

“Our tale begins in London
in a house on Bloomsbury Street.
Inside there lived a family,
the nicest you could meet.”

Hart not only retells the story, but imbues it with a narrator’s warmth, gently guiding the readers as Peter guides Wendy through the sky. There’s much plot and little description, but the setting is neatly filled in with Warburton’s filmic illustrations, rendering the mermaids mischievous with a flick of an eyebrow, the pirates both comedic and threatening with their sometime mean, sometime dozy expressions, and their excessive facial hair.

With pure pantomime timing, Hart executes all the finer details of the plot, and the familiar phrases – as children the land over clap their hands to save Tinkerbell, and there is much walking the plank, the introduction of the ‘Wendy’ house, and of course lots of fighting. But she also pulls out the dramatic pantomime hilarity of the story – Pan poking Hook from behind, then inciting him to climb the crow’s nest where he immediately feels dizzy. Child readers and listeners will be both engrossed with the fast-paced plot but also cheered with the numerous nods to win their humour. Hart also makes use of much onomatopoeia, building drama wherever possible with the ticks of the clock and the snaps of the crocodile, the canon’s boom and the water’s splosh.

The text is split neatly into four line verses, at times each illustrated separately, and sometimes illustrated with a full double page spread landscape. The production is superb – the pages are lush and thick, the colour bursting from the page in wondrous detail – the last spread has Peter almost silhouetted on a rock whilst in the foreground Tinkerbell literally shines and the flowers seem luminous in her wake. Other spreads delight with detail – the pirate ship, but also the lost boys’ underground home with its hammocks, swinging lanterns and shelves of curiosity. This is one you read to a child nestled in your arms – and with a ribbon bookmark and foiled jacket, you’ll both feel spoiled and all set for winter nights in – just keep the windows closed:

“They’d slipped out through the window,
quite ignoring Nana’s warning.
“Second to the right!” they cried.
“Then straight on until morning!”

Find your own way to Neverland here.

The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino

train to impossible places“Letting people choose their own leaders is wonderful in theory, but they keep making the wrong choices. Better to have someone in charge who knows what they’re doing, wouldn’t you say?”

Is The Train to Impossible Places a post-Trump children’s novel? What started, according to notes from the author at the back of the book, as a made-up-on-the-spot bedtime story for his child has surely picked up political acuity and cultural relevance as it was written down and came to find its place on publishers’ lists and bookshops’ shelves.

At the heart of this fantastic adventure story is a fight between two entities – one who’s just a mean bully with the magical powers to imprison people and commands a huge army of stone statues (who come to life to spy and fight), and the other who has an obsession with spying on everyone with the intention to glean all the information in the world, and thus take his place as the most powerful man on the planet, keen to use knowledge to manipulate and coerce.

The narrative starts with eleven-year-old Suzy, a child character whose adventures begin at night-time, and thus stays clothed in her pyjamas and dressing gown throughout (like Sophie in The BFG, or Tom in his midnight garden, the boy in The Snowman). Bell makes use of Suzy’s dressing gown though – the belt and pockets coming in very handy. She finds a troll building a railway line through her house for the Impossible Postal Express. Too late to un-remember what she’s seen, and far too curious, she leaps aboard the train and becomes the new postie under Wilmot, the troll Postmaster, bound for the Union of Impossible Places – a series of magical worlds.

Her first job is to deliver a cursed package to the rather terrifying sorceress, Lady Crepuscula, but things take a turn for the worse when she decides not to deliver the parcel quite as she should. And the consequences stretch far beyond just one undelivered package.

Suzy is a physics nut, which is useful (or useless depending on your perspective) in a place in which the usual rules of physics turn surprisingly on their head; the trolls introducing her to fuzzics instead. With clever reference to real scientific principles such as energy, velocity and speed, Suzy not only uses her science to save the day more than once, but also battles to comprehend the new fuzzics of the Impossible Places, where wormholes are normal and whole cities hang upside down.

Bell’s knack of plot propulsion, with many twists and turns, ups and downs, and multiple viewpoints, keeps the action fast and fresh in a whizzing adventure story. At the same time he introduces an undercurrent of scientific principles, a clear witty nod to the feminist movement with his introduction of womanly Ursel, (a brown bear who is yellow – she’s a blonde by choice – and has the job of keeping the Postal Express moving by fueling it with fusion bananas), and also an acknowledgement of age-old industries dying and with them both the job market and a population’s sense of purpose.

The Postal Express has been whittled down to just a lone Postmaster, what with the advent of new technologies, and the old manufacturing level at Troll city is in decline. With problems on the railways, including occasional disconnects, some late post and last minute delays, Bell gives a sharp precis of our changing world and diminishing trades.

There’s also a huge dose of British irony, with humour nicely planted throughout the book, and witty allusions to much culture and storytelling of the past – including the chapter heading ‘The Lion, the witch and the war zone’ – parents reading the story aloud will adore the many references, not least the underwater ghost pirates, Lady Crepuscular and her stone army, and many more. I kept jotting down little notes next to the text – Miss Haversham, Dr Who, Harry Potter, Men in Black….

The book is so much more than this though. With clearly defined characters all with motives for their actions, an understanding of the rhythm and flow of a good book, comic flair, and above all a top-notch fast-paced adventure plot, this is a phenomenal new novel.

The publishers thought so too – they have spared no expense. There’s a beautiful cover that sits underneath the dust jacket, and glorious black and white illustrations throughout by Flavia Sorrentino. I particularly appreciated her rendering of Trollville. (turn the book upside down).

Don’t miss this one – it’s a cracker. I’m going to read it again now – this time to a willing listener, and I’m ready for book two (as yet no publication date). You can buy it here.

The Afterwards by AF Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett

the afterwardsWhen I was at school I studied the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in a couple of different forms – French playwright Jean Anouilh’s version and Ovid’s telling. It’s a love story of the highest order, in which Eurydice tragically dies and Orpheus attempts to bring her back from the Underworld. Even in the versions in which a narrator has tried to imbue the story with some kind of uplifting ending – such as Orpheus’s songs enchanting everyone forever – the tale is still incredibly melancholy. Thinking back, I wonder if my teachers were mad to give such material to fourteen-year-old girls.

And yet modern children’s literature is constantly eking out the darker corners of our lives – the shadowy parts. In the past year I’ve come across many picture books, young fiction and young adult fiction that all show children harsh realities – the horrific plight of refugees, bullies at school, death of close family members. Almost all of them end on a hopeful note in an attempt to show children resilience, forbearance perhaps, and that they are not alone in their tragedy.

When AF Harrold writes ‘serious’, he tends to reach into those dark corners, having dealt with loss in The Imaginary and bullying in The Song of Somewhere Else, amongst other things. He has described The Afterwards as the last of this triumvirate of books (not a trilogy – these are stand-alone titles) but they all link, in their collective other worldly, serious, atmospheric way. For it is the atmosphere they evoke almost more than the plot itself, which disturbs the soul.

The Afterwards is perhaps his darkest yet, melancholy in feel and quietly devastating. Ember and Ness are best friends – Ember lives with her father after her mother left a long time ago, and Ness lives next door. But then Ness dies (rather horrifically by falling off a swing and hitting her head – this is not a book for the faint-hearted child). Ember is left feeling lost and empty.

When Ember finds a way into the Afterworld, she decides she must bring Ness back with her. But the Afterworld is not going to let go of Ness so easily, and Ember finds that the demands made upon her will change how she thinks about things forever.

Any book dealing with the large topics of death, loss, memory and what happens after death is bound to address the darker side, but Harrold’s writing, even in its comic sphere, is full of atmosphere – and here it is dark indeed. The colours of the world are stripped away in the Afterworld – a metaphor used oft before – but here it really packs a punch. For not only has the colour been stripped away but also Ness’s energy, sapping slowly from her to leave her in a frightening, apathetic state – half the person she was, lacking her zest and charisma. An even more haunting premise is the other person that Ember comes across in the Afterworld – a frightening prospect that comes at the climax of the book, leaving Ember with an unbearable choice and the lingering feeling of sadness at mothers who die without seeing their children grow up. What’s more, there is a character in Ember’s real world who is willing to do something so dreadful that you wonder at Harrold’s daring at placing it at the heart of this novel.

This is a powerful book – written so matter-of-factly (and yet with the poise of a poet) that the magical realism of the Afterworld seems palpable and plausible; the characters so neatly drawn that they feel as if they are just around our own corner. But what haunts particularly is the unbearable feeling of loss and grief that permeates all the shadows of this book – even the grief over an animal.

Brief moments of comedic insight come in a wry style in dialogue between Ember and her father, but for the most part this is a deeply disturbing read. That’s not to say it isn’t troublingly good. It is. The story is always compelling, pushing the reader on in a relentless thrust of impatience to make everything right again, to make Ember happy again. And in the end, with a talking cat and the uplift of happy memories, things are, sort of, okay. But any children’s book that ends with a funeral needs to be read with an enormous amount of sensitivity.

This is a story about memory and loss and the power of love, the latter of which exudes with the illustrations drawn by Emily Gravett. At this point I must confess to only having seen an early proof with limited illustrations, but so far for me, they have provided the uplift – the handsome colour of real life – snapshots of Ember’s ordinary life, which both warms and chills once the reader realises what’s going to happen. The image of Ember’s Dad untying her shoelaces, the family photographs around the house, the wonder of friendship giggles over holiday stories, and the sure-fire shared look of best friends across a room. The couple of illustrations provided nearer the middle of the book are of course, darker, but there is a wonderful intimacy to them still – a poignancy and power that goes hand in hand with the text.

This is an extraordinary book, one that will stay in the memory, and one that should be widely read – but with caution. Its haunting quality may be contagious. You can buy it here.

Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer

armistice runnerTom Palmer has been writing books about sport for some time, and combining history and sport to bring each of those subjects to children who wouldn’t necessarily access the other. Armistice Runner is Palmer’s latest book, published in conjunction with Barrington Stoke, and placed perfectly in commemoration of the centenary. But publishing something at an opportune time doesn’t make it a success – it takes a whole host of other factors. Factors that Palmer demonstrates in abundance in his latest book – a gripping story that parallels and contrasts historical and modern, pointing to the individual to bring out the whole, and dazzling the reader with its historical research, compelling descriptions, and mostly, its massively empathetic characters.

Lily is struggling to compete in her fell-running races, often losing to a rival competitor named Abbie. Maybe it’s because Lily has other things on her mind. Her grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and her father is increasingly upset by the disease’s development. When they go to visit, Lily’s running reminds her grandmother of her own grandfather – a fell runner himself, who also served at the Front during the First World War. When Lily discovers her great-great-grandfather’s (Ernest’s) diaries, they help her to make connections with her grandmother, as well as give her the confidence and inspiration to keep attacking her own runs.

The book splits off into dual narratives – the reader exploring the historical diaries alongside Lily, and thus as invested emotionally as Lily herself. When she stops reading because of an incident with her family, the reader feels Lily’s frustration at being unable to dive back into the diaries and carry on, and yet the reader also wants to hear more about Lily’s story. It’s a well-concocted balance of voices.

The parts of the book in Ernest’s voice are evocative of the Front (he was a runner messenger on the front lines) and yet not so gruesome or devastating as to put off young readers – a feat hard to capture. Again, the balance is just right. Descriptions of rotting flesh feel very real, as do Ernest’s emotions and friendships, and it becomes apparent how delicate the communications were during the war at the Front, particularly in the days and hours preceding the Armistice.

This is a good view of the effect of war on the individual, and Palmer draws clever comparisons between the two time periods – Lily’s and Ernest’s – in terms of them both dealing with loss, loyalty, friendship and seeing things from others’ points of view.

Palmer deals particularly sensitively with Lily’s grandmother. It can be confusing for a pre-teen, at a time in which they’re dealing with defining their own identity, to have a close relative mis-remember who they are. And Palmer explores Lily’s emotions in dealing with her little brother and her father with regards to their relationships with the grandmother, and her debilitating disease. It can be upsetting to see one’s parents in pain, at the same time as discovering that they’re fallible creatures themselves who don’t have all the answers. And Lily tries to have the right answers for her little brother.

Ernest’s grief is also portrayed – his struggle with the loss of his brother, and seeing his own parents suffer – but Palmer brings in here the emotional release of physical exercise. Fell running is distinctive in the effort needed to run uphill and the strength of character involved, but also the freefall sensation of running downhill in fell running – the battle against one’s own instincts to hold back and retain control.

The story of Lily’s great-great grandfather’s past and the lessons he learns about reaching across barriers, and loyalty to others, helps strengthen Lily’s confidence in dealing with her own rivalries, and her family issues, showing that the past really can inform the future.

And I can’t help but mention how accessible the text is – both in that it has been written for publisher Barrington Stoke, (specialists in producing books for struggling readers), but also in that Palmer has two genders telling the story, and a female dominating, in the type of story (sport and World War I) usually dominated by men.

If the book stimulates discussion and further study, you’d do well to look at Tom Palmer’s own website with its brilliant range of accompanying resources. And you can buy the book here.