Book of the Week

The Ice Garden by Guy Jones

ice gardenHasn’t everyone at some point imagined that they could escape into another world? Whether it be into Narnia through the wardrobe, or cutting a hole in the air with a Subtle Knife, or even discovering a new place within our own world that holds such a different atmosphere, such an exciting contrasting place with our own reality (perhaps through a doorway into a Secret Garden), that new possibilities arise.

Guy Jones provides this opportunity for his protagonist, Jess. A girl who needs new possibilities more than most. Jess is allergic to the sun. She lives a confined life, in the rooms of her own house, or behind the tinted windows of her car, and also within the sterile walls of the local hospital. So when she moves through the trees at night and discovers an ice garden beyond the local playground, in which her skin never burns, she feels as if a whole new world of adventures is opening for her.

But someone else has left footprints in the snow, and a garden made of ice has its own fragilities.

This is a slight novel in terms of pages, but a novel brimming with a richness in words, plot and character. Enticingly written, in that the words are both lyrical and yet gripping, the reader is swept along with Jess, feeling for her in her contemporary world in which going outside means donning ‘Full Hat’ to avoid exposure, and yet also breathless with excitement for her when she enters the Ice Garden, and just as enchanted with all it contains.

Jones has a magical way of describing the real world. Jess’s relationship with her mother feels authentic and heart-breaking, as her mother and Jess are consistently torn between wanting freedom for Jess and a lack of constriction, and yet a protectiveness – Jess of her own skin, and her mother of her own child.

Yet Jones also manages to conjure a quite incredible fantasy landscape too – letting loose his imagination with new creatures, but also playing with features of this garden to make them into a playground for Jess (something she has so wanted). There’s a maze, a groove that acts as a slide, and endless ice features, as well as elements of fear and danger. He also gives a nod to other ‘portal’ adventures, expressing Jess’s disappointment that time in the real world doesn’t stand still while she’s in this ‘otherworld’ but continues as normal. What the ice garden does do though, is make her see her ‘normal’ world as quite remarkable.

This is mainly due to the friend she makes within the ice garden – another asset the garden gives Jess which she had most desired. And it’s the friendship that opens up her eyes to the meaning of loneliness and solitude, which allows her to fully explore the meaning of her illness, the saving capabilities of storytelling, and the tenderness that can exist between people.

The other theme that runs through the book is that of nomenclature. When Jess encounters new things within the ice garden, she gives them names, hence attaching her own emotional significance to them, giving the unknown an indication of the characteristic she sees it possesses – and therefore how she should interact with it.

“But in the ice garden nothing had a name until she gave it one. ‘Elephant Mouse,’ she said. ‘I hereby name your species the Elephant Mouse.’ The animal gave a little squeak, as if agreeing, and Jess giggled with excitement.”

Jess’s naming of the species gives her delight and when she encounters it again later, she refers to it as her own elephant mouse. This ownership and tendency towards colonialism fades as Jess realises that there is another within the garden, and also makes her think – to whom does the garden belong – for gardens are made, they are not freeform landscapes.

When, in the end, Jess’s two worlds collide, she comes to discover that she can make friends in her own world – in fact she already has – and that she can live without her illness defining her.

Jones writes with a sophisticated tenderness, and a confidence in his story that satisfies the reader and leads to deeper thought. An accomplished book that should live long after the ice melts. You can buy it here.

Meet the…Ancient Romans by James Davies

meet the ancient romansThere is one key feature of nonfiction for children for which I am always on the lookout, and that’s the author’s ability to put over information in an accessible and concise way, no matter the scope or depth of that information. Then, of course that information has to be interesting, and explain the point well enough so that children understand and are hooked, but not provide so much detail that they get lost in reams of text.

Those looking to emulate those skills, should seek out Meet the Ancient Romans by James Davies. A vast subject to tackle, the Ancient Roman Empire spans all elements of life and hundreds of years of history – and yet Davies has managed to compact it all into a golden nugget of information for young readers.

Each book – for there is one on Ancient Egyptians too – is 64 pages, and manages to cram a huge amount into a small book, and much of that information is conveyed through explanatory and amusing illustrations.

Meet the…Ancient Romans tackles everything from Roman numerals and emperors to way of life and the army, but also addresses questions a child might have if they have already heard something of the subject matter. For example, it references that the child may have heard of Caesar, and be questioning why he isn’t mentioned on the emperors’ hall of fame page – Davies then gives the answer to this – Caesar wasn’t actually an emperor.

Above all, the book is highly visual. This is determined by the colour tone, which gives the reader their first impression – for Rome the book is red in tone, which implies tomatoes (for me anyway, which I associate with that part of the world, but also of course for the red pigment used in their villas, as well as the red material and paint which is associated with their god of war, Mars.) The Egyptian book is yellow – presumably for sand.

But more than just the large limited colour palate, Davies’ book is highly visual because each page is dominated by cartoon-like images and vignettes of people, doing the tasks described. There is immense attention to detail in these drawings – from the mighty legions in the Rome book to the depiction of mummification in the Egypt book. This is hugely impressive, but Davies has also inserted his sense of humour into the illustrations – one Roman soldier seems to have lost his uniform for example; this is a book that entertains as well as informs.

There are also comedic speech bubbles, somewhat reminiscent of Horrible Histories, although Davies’ book is for a younger audience, and is brighter, bolder and shorter!

As Davies progresses the narrative through the book, he adds more and more comments to his explanations. From Roman numerals to the army, clothing and schooling, the author uses one liners or small phrases to indicate his opinion, and it feels as if his personality is growing with the book. A sense of intimacy and shared comedy is felt with the author – a lovely touch for an information book for a young audience.

Each book ends with a very short and sweet timeline; in Ancient Romans, it depicts the beginning of Rome with Romulus and Remus to the end of the Roman Empire in AD 476 when Germany invaded. You can buy a copy here.

The companion title, Meet the Ancient Egyptians is equally buzzing with personality and information.  A fair amount of this title is spent on death and the afterlife, an obsession both of the people of the time, but also children today who are often captivated by the process of mummification, and the tombs in which the pharaohs were buried.

The series feels as if it were made to last, and should be an excellent addition to all school libraries, but also a great gift for those looking to pique children’s interest in Ancient History. I’ll be looking out for further titles…hoping for Greece and Mayans….You can buy the Ancient Egyptians book here.

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

Tin by Padraig Kenny

Tin by Padraig Kenny“Without a knowledge of history to give him [a student] a context for present events, he is at the mercy of every social misdiagnosis handed to him.” So said Hilary Mantel about history. And whilst Tin isn’t a historical novel, it is set in a distorted past, providing an opportunity to open the reader’s mind to thoughts about an alternative future. For this is a book about Artificial Intelligence, cleverly disguised as a Pinocchio style adventure.

Christopher works for an engineer, making ‘mechanicals’: children-shaped metallic figures with magical glyphs, like computer code, which empower them to act like humans. These mechanicals become some of his closest friends and family. But a devastating accident reveals a secret about Christopher’s past, and leads him down a path of self-discovery, and also a glimpse of what mechanicals could really do.

Not only is this an extraordinarily clever novel, but it is also a gripping children’s read, and a social commentary at the same time. The mechanicals are wonderfully written – Kenny showcases them with varying degrees of intelligence, knowledge and sentience – not unlike humans it must be said, but manages to portray each with its own particular personality, as well as consistently showing them to be not quite human. There’s Rob, simple, naïve, excessively loyal and caring. Manda, the small girl with her teddy bear, Gripper – the oversize muscle robot. Each has its own role, and part in the plot, but Kenny cleverly writes them ‘reading’ human interaction by studying humans’ body language and imitating it, not unlike how babies’ read their parents, but this is more stated, more blatant. The mechanicals also spell out how they are deciphering the meaning of words – especially when a word has more than one meaning. In this way, the mechanicals seem slightly less nuanced, simpler in their emotional intelligence, more childlike. And yet, they pulsate with emotion and the reader has endless empathy for them. It’s a clever manipulation of the reader, and by doing this Kenny is also showing how artificial intelligence could indeed manipulate humans.

In fact, Kenny’s point throughout this is to provoke the reader into thinking about what makes us human. With allusions to Pinocchio, who wanted to be a real boy, and was introduced to the concepts of responsibility and shunning frivolity and temptation in order to become real, and also The Wizard of Oz, in which Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man all want various human assets in order to be real, Kenny probes the essence of humanity:

“Rob turned to look in the direction of the sound. If he had a heart it would have skipped a beat -”

But in Tin, the mechanicals discover things about themselves through their interactions with others – both fellow mechanicals and humans. They realise that what makes somebody human is familial ties – the ability to love and mourn. The mechanicals experience loss, and then love to a certain degree, but they are still not completely human – they remain mechanical because they don’t have a soul, some essence of something that can’t be defined. They remain simple without ‘real’ memories.

They also remain mechanical because they can’t experience ‘malice’ or aggression. This is where Kenny steps up the pace of his book, as he explores the idea of mechanicals ensouled in order to work as soldiers. Here, Kenny nods towards The Terminator, and explores the idea of artificial intelligence used for mal-intent. What makes us human, he implies, is not just the ability to love deeply, but the ability to harm deeply too. Humans are all about power. And, most apt, in these times, a human’s ability to distinguish between lies and truth.

By setting the novel in a distorted past (a revised 1930s), in which the Great War has happened with appalling loss of life, and cars are on the increase, although there are still horses and carts, Kenny has inserted mechanicals/robots in a small way – they are chauffeurs and work in retail – although they haven’t completely dominated the landscape – there isn’t an implication of robots taking on all elements of industrialisation, yet.

But what the robots have done, in a roundabout way, is to crush the women’s movement. In Tin, females are vastly absent. There is only Estelle, who works for the engineer Absolom, albeit in an illegal way, as women are forbidden from being engineers/craftsmen. In this way, the reader can assume that if robots are working at certain tasks, the number of jobs available to humans is diminished.

Despite some horrors within the story, this is a positive book, with much humour and many more allusions to other great works. Toy Story yes, but also Willy Wonka – who ran a factory of Oompa Loompas, and was revered as the greatest chocolate maker, just as Cormier in Tin is revered as the greatest mechanical creator:

“He’s in there, behind that gate,” said Sam, pointing in the opposite direction. “No one ever comes out, and no one ever goes in.”

The outcome of the book is vastly upbeat. This is a children’s book after all, and they tend to end in a more uplifting way. But what the reader takes away is a thoughtfulness about humanity – who we are, how we treat others, and what the future may hold. As well as how humans can be better people, how we can overcome malice and aggression and the seeking of power, and look instead to focusing on love and family and connections:

“You don’t have a soul. You don’t need one. You’re not proper. You’re better than proper.” You can buy it here.

 

Below Zero by Dan Smith

below zeroCold landscapes enthral the mind in these icy months, but there are no ice queens, lyrical snowy descriptions or frosty ice rinks here. This is a fast-paced, gripping thriller that alludes to Star Wars, involves spider drones, artificial intelligence used for mal purposes, and has a protagonist who is both emotionally engaging and full of wit and charm.

When Zak and his family crash land at Outpost Zero, an Antarctic research base set up to house people who may in the future be the first humans to live on Mars, the power is out and it is as cold and dark inside as out. The people are nowhere to be found, and Zak starts to have visions of things that aren’t there, things that might be connected to something lurking beneath the ice.

The action dips back and forwards between Zak’s present day reality, and the actions of mere hours before, in which Sofia, one of the people housed on the research base, discovered something rather fascinating and dangerous about a substance beneath the ice. The time jumps sharpen and intensify the plot, and lend a satisfying anticipatory buildup to the action.

At about the time of reading, I was also watching Attenborough’s Blue Planet II and the discovery of the deep sea’s hydrothermal vents – perhaps the origins of life on Earth. Smith’s novel ideas timely dip into these vents, with the idea that what Sofia finds deep beneath the ice is alive, and indeed life-giving. His preposterous plot becomes more real, more plausible.

But it’s with the idea of the spider drones that Smith really taps into our current zeitgeist. Zak’s parents are scientists, the inventors of the spider drones that are used on the research base to perform a number of robotic tasks. When the life-giving matter beneath the ice attaches itself to the drones, the artificial intelligence of the drones suddenly isn’t so artificial. But are they a force for good, or for evil?

Smith’s playfulness with artificial intelligence and human’s use of the environment makes sure that although this novel drives home some deep thoughts, the story remains as a thriller should – playful, light, page-turning.

Zak is a warm character – he suffers from a brain tumour, and is accompanied throughout most of the action by his parents and sister, which gives him both a rounding and a humanity as he responds to his parents’ worries, and his sister’s goading. But mainly he’s a lovable character on his own. Thoughtful, daring and very real.

The author also throws in a third point of view – a mysterious character called The Broker, who has nothing but evil intent, although intriguingly enough, he too is shown with family.

And it is through families that Smith views the world. Motivation and ultimate victory comes to those who most care about the consequences their actions have on others. Despite the implausibility of most of the story and the ending, this is a cracking good read, with heart-pounding tension, limitless action and a wonderfully remote and exciting setting.

Top adventure, great fun, and a nod towards our own future. You can buy your own copy here.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Elphinstone’s stories whisk away the reader into a fantasy landscape with more than a hint of magic, where nature beguiles the reader and becomes more than a setting, nestling as a fundamental character inside the story.

Her first trilogy, The Dreamsnatcher, told of Moll and her quest against evil. Sky Song also pitches a fiery youngster against evil, but here, Elphinstone has woven elements of the current political and social climate into her book, and borrowed from time old fairy stories and folk tales to excavate a new kind of modern story.

Eska, held captive for her voice by the Ice Queen, breaks free from her musical box prison, but remembers nothing of herself or her past. When she learns her destiny: to journey to the Never Cliffs and sing the powerful song to win back the lands of Erkenwald from the Ice Queen, restoring them to the rightful tribes, she learns that she is also is in a race against time and the Ice Queen, who is desperate to steal back Eska’s voice. But once freed from the music box of the Winterfang Palace, Eska finds it hard to make friends and allies. The tribes are mistrustful of her. She must prove that she too wants to be rid of the Ice Queen forever, and that although she does not have a tribe of people around her, she has a different tribe, filled by creatures of nature, which may be just as powerful.

The power of the voice, (it will give the Ice Queen immortality), and the stealing of it, works powerfully in Elphinstone’s book. Of course there are the inevitable allusions to Philomela, whose tongue was cut out in Ovid’s Metamorphosis to prevent her from denouncing her male attacker, and who was eventually turned into a bird who sings. There are allusions to The Little Mermaid – another feisty young girl who sold her voice for humanity (or so she thought). The book revisits Telemachus’s proclamation to Penelope that ‘speech will be the business of men’ and challenges it wholeheartedly. For the power of a young woman’s voice is still relevant in 2018, a year in which this resonates more than most – being the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. Following the power of Anne Frank’s voice, of Malala’s voice, of #metoo – the rise of the woman’s cry, even against another woman, speaks to the power of speaking up for yourself, for believing in what’s right and fighting for it.

The book is first and foremost an icy adventure, with a journey through shiveringly cold frightening landscapes, magicked by the sorcery of the Ice Queen, where avalanches tumble, and lakes hide monstrous depths. But it is also the story of friendship and bravery, as Eska and her friend Flint, along with his sister Blu, traverse mountains together and use teamwork to overcome adversity, and triumph against the Ice Queen.

Most of all, Elphinstone has shown the reader that belief is important. Belief in oneself and one’s own voice, but also in one’s own talents even if they are scorned by others (Flint is a master of invention – in this case using magic rather than pure science). Although there is no overt religion discussed here, as perhaps the reader saw in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman for example, there is an overarching belief in spirituality – that there is something greater to strive for than one’s own selfish desire. Elphinstone has divided the peoples of her book into tribes, Fur, Feather and Tusk, and initially the society is shown as having lost its belief system, because being cowed by one evil being (the Ice Queen) has made each tribe more inward-looking. Even more than that, The Ice Queen has caused ripples of fear, and so the tribes have turned not only inwards, but against each other, and harbour an intense fear of strangers and outsiders, lest they be spies or intruders.

By the end of the book the message is clearly that tribalism may not work, that strangers do not necessarily have evil intent, and by working together, evil can be overcome.

As well as the large messages within, this book showcases a writer coming into her own. The descriptions are lush and appealing – the flump of snow flopping from a branch, and crack and pop of the river melting – a feeling of Narnia-eque bursting into spring. The Ice Queen brings memories from The Snow Queen, and the fairy tale language of the voice-over prologue lends itself well to the feeling of timelessness and gives an all-encompassing setting to Erkenwald and its various tribes (although less confident readers may wish to get straight into the story of Eska).

There are numerous child-friendly touches within the story – the protagonists are children of course, but there are hideouts and dens lovingly described, and a constant flow of energy and vivacity sending their tendrils through the story. Eska’s oneness with nature is brilliantly evoked – she uses nature to feed and clothe herself – sewing with sinews, learning to hunt without her shadow giving her away. There is also the touching character of Blu, shown with a mild intellectual disability, but it is noticeable that the older children and adults are those least forgiving of this; Blu is easily accepted by Eska, Flint, and those with kind, open hearts.

This is a fantastic story of friendship, nature, overcoming adversity, but most of all acceptance and belonging. Always enthralling and daring, it speaks to our darkest fears and our intrinsic faults, and yet to an ongoing belief in the strength of humanity and empathy to pull us through. You can buy it here.

Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll

Sprung from The Big Idea Competition, and Neal Jackson’s story idea ‘The First Aeronauts’, Emma Carroll’s latest historical fiction sees her entering the world of France in 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot air balloon flight over Versailles. Carroll has woven their story seamlessly with a wonderful adventure narrative that manages to be fresh and modern, incorporating ideas of gender politics, science, identity and social class. Although Sky Chasers is fiction, Carroll writes with an acute sense of history, with huge attention to detail and period.

Carroll’s novels are all well put together, but this one in particular is as brilliantly executed as the guillotine. The protagonist is Magpie, an orphan girl, who pickpockets and thieves to make her way in the world. The book uses the Magpie nursery rhyme: One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, to delineate the sections of the book, and not only does usage of this version of the rhyme fit the gender play of the story ‘three for a girl, four for a boy’, it wonderfully ties into the theme of birds, because the first living beings to fly in a basket hitched to a hot air balloon were a duck, a rooster and a sheep:

Magpie can’t believe her eyes when she sees a boy dancing in the sky. When she realises that he’s ‘flying’, hanging onto a rope from the prototype balloon, she knows she wants a part in it. Of course, it’s not that simple for an orphan girl, especially when the boy is the son of Joseph Montgolfier, and she’s already been inside their house – thieving!

Integrated in the plot of how Magpie, her rooster, the boy Pierre, and his duck end up in the first balloon flight over Versailles are all sorts of elements, including pistols at dawn, suspicion of English spies, and mistaken identity. Carroll has great fun bringing in period details and playing with historical character – the reader first meets Marie Antoinette eating cake at Versailles.

There is also the wonder of science and invention. The Montgolfier brothers have made headway by the time Magpie arrives, but Carroll plays with Magpie’s powers of observation allowing her to spot details they might have missed. She has the idea for lift from undergarments drying in the kitchen for example. These ‘accidental’ details feed into the invention of balloon flight, and bring science down to a basic, and yet exciting level. Invention, quite often, comes about by accident.

A baddie lurks in the background of the novel too, underpinning the suspense – difficult sometimes to conjure in historical fiction where the outcome is already known. But here, the baddie is not all as she seems – indeed there are many cases of mistaken identity within the novel, both good to bad, boy to girl, which makes the reader think carefully about each character’s motivation, intention and ambition. Carroll has also pinned down the Montgolfier brothers quite spectacularly despite her brevity, as in this story they are but secondary characters to the children.

Add to that a profound sense of alienation and belonging, be it nationhood, social class or family, and the reader sees that this is an adventure novel with multiple layers. Carroll is a master of historical fiction, painting a vivid picture of the time with colour and period detail, but also bringing in themes, such as belonging, that still resonate today.

But above all, it is the wonder of flight that pulls in the reader. In fact, reading the fantastic description of flight, one can see how this melds into the view an author might have of their novel – as Magpie sees the gardens of Versailles and fields beyond laid out beneath her like toys, so the landscape of a book enables the author and reader to garner a larger world view, an encompassing picture of who they are compared to history.

The power of possibility is held aloft in this soaring novel. As it is sent wind borne into bookshops, you can catch your own here.

The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson

the light jarLisa Thompson excels at illuminating the darker, scary and more painful side of life, even when it penetrates children’s lives, and then shining a positive light on the situation and making the world glow brighter with hope.

Her first novel, The Goldfish Boy, shed some light on OCD, its effects, misunderstandings about it by peers, and the wretched humiliation it can cause (and yet all neatly tied up in a children’s mystery book). This latest, The Light Jar, enlightens the reader about even darker issues, including the effects of psychological abuse, the terror of being abandoned, and fears about darkness, but again does so in a clever and warm way, so that it never feels as if the issues highlighted overshadow the story or are so dark that they are inappropriate for the readership.

Nate and his mother run away to a tumbledown cottage, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. On the second day, Nate’s mother leaves to buy provisions, but never returns. But it turns out, he’s not completely alone, for comfort shines at him in the way of friendship from a mysterious girl called Kitty, solving a treasure hunt nearby, as well as the surprising appearance of a friend from the past.

Thompson intersperses Nate’s fear of being left alone, and worry for his missing mother, with humour in the way of a stray chicken and Nate’s Magic 8 ball, and a simply marvellous book that Nate carries round called ‘Freaky Things to Freak You Out’, a type of non-fiction mystery book. The book inspires Nate to solve Kitty’s treasure hunt, and provides humorous elements to the story. Indeed, although Nate doesn’t forget his fearful situation, Kitty’s treasure hunt propels the plot with an engrossing mystery to solve, and actively involves the reader by including rhyming clues within the text.

But with light, comes darkness too, and here Thompson crafts it in the way of Nate’s memories, which gradually show that Nate and his mother are escaping an abusive relationship with his mother’s new boyfriend. No physical violence is explored, but instead a creeping psychological abuse that’s threatening and horrifying to live through. Thompson deals with this gently, and with enormous understanding. The most interesting memory is that of Nate bringing home a friend for tea, and how the boyfriend deals with the situation. The manipulation of the play date is well handled, and the author here cleverly invokes both incredible sympathy for Nate, as well as empathy with the friend, who although he doesn’t realise what is going on, and isn’t friendly afterwards, would enable the reader to think twice in such situations before dismissing a friend so easily – there may be much going on behind closed doors, and awareness and understanding are key.

There’s no technology in the book (mobile phones/wifi etc) – characters must do away with traceable technology when they’re on the run, and the lack of it adds an extra dimension to the story, as well as intriguingly letting the plot remain highly contemporary and realistic. At first, the book reminded me of The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn by Tania Unsworth, another novel in which a child is seemingly abandoned by her mother and left within a crumbling house. And although there are similar fears and imaginings, The Light Jar soon veered off into different territory.

What both have in common though, is an expert handling of suspense, and text that flows effortlessly, engaging and enthralling the reader. Although The Light Jar has an horrific topic in the shadows, it feels both clever and warm and points to the wonder and light of friendship and hope.

There’s much light in Thompson’s writing; you’d be mad to keep it in the dark. You can purchase your copy here.

 

Girls Who Code by Reshma Saujani and Sarah Hutt, illustrated by Andrea Tsurumi

I’ve been trying to think about which book would suit my last book of the week for the year 2017. What trends have there been, what news, what good coming out of the year? There’s a lot of doom and gloom with Brexit, Trump, and plastic in the environment, but I wanted to focus on the good things.

One good thing, and slightly closer to home, is the surge of awareness of gender equality. Of society beginning to see women and girls as equal to men and boys and fighting harder for a lack of discrimination, harassment and stereotyping. There have been hugely successful children’s books covered by mainstream media, such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, but how do we teach our girls to not only look up to pioneers who went before them, but also to change the world for the better? Technology is a huge part of our modern world – a massive chunk of our children’s waking lives. So, rather than just getting them to use the technology, let’s teach them to understand how it works. You can’t beat an algorithm if you don’t understand it.

Recently, various girls in my school have been learning to code. And one pioneer of this revolution is Reshma Saujani. You can see her TED talk here, which explains why we should be teaching girls bravery rather than perfection – a key message in her book too.

Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World is proving to be helpful in many ways.

It is not just a manual for learning to code – in fact it’s not for beginners learning to code, but a resource to explain coding, and to promote confidence in doing so. The book doesn’t teach a specific coding language – as say Usborne Coding for Beginners Using Python, which is a step-by-step guide and a very useful one at that. Rather, Girls Who Code tries to indicate the logic and theory behind programming, often using cartoons in real-life applications to extricate the meaning of making the code. Although it might sound complex at first, with a little concentration my pre-tween tester completely understood the premise.

There’s also coding history and interviews with women working in programming, all of which give the message that STEM is great for girls, but that also failing and retrying are essential. Wrapped up in these is Saujani’s key message that perfection is not what girls should be striving for, but aiming instead to learn from mistakes. After all, penicillin was discovered by mistake; the first pacemaker was invented by mistake too. As was Coca-Cola – and look how successful that became.

Of course, the fun bit of coding is included in the book too – fun projects with apps, games and art etc. Throughout the book are illustrations in one-tone teal, which show a diverse cast of girls learning to code, with speech bubbles, diagrams and comics – these break up the text and are hugely informative.

In the end, the idea is that as well as understanding what coding is, and how to go about it, girls will understand how useful it is, how accessible computer science is. With a knowledge of programming, girls can go on to solve problems, take control, and in essence, change the world. An admirable book to look forward to a new year. You can buy it here.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally WonThe sequel to the award-winning The War that Saved My Life, published in 2015, this extraordinary book manages to encapsulate a feeling of extreme hope and love despite the many traumatic aspects of the protagonist’s life (and those around her).

It’s easy to understand the background of the novel without having read the first title, although it is so good that I’d encourage readers new to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley to go back and read the first before this one.

The War I Finally Won is set during the aftermath of 11-year-old Ada’s recovery from corrective surgery for her clubfoot. She has been rescued from her abusive birth mother (mainly by the fact that an air raid bomb has killed her mother), and is now living in the countryside with her younger brother Jamie, and her new guardian, Susan. As well as dealing with the fallout of a childhood of abuse, and therefore a distinct lack of ability to trust, Ada has to deal with a world at war.

Brubaker Bradley encapsulates wartime rural life with aplomb; exploring details of the class structure, love for animals, the dangers of disease, anguish for those sent abroad to face combat, and the everyday struggles for survival with rations, blackouts and dispersed families. When a young Jewish German refugee comes to stay, what happened to German Jews during the war is explored gently and sensitively, and there are references to Bletchley too.

Grief is touched upon, with references to both Susan’s loss, and a grief that comes later on in the book, and it is delicately nuanced and sympathetic. With so many conflicted and damaged characters gathered in one place, there is bound to be drama, but Brubaker Bradley never stoops to melodrama to eke out her story.

This is an empathetic, realistic and in the end, joyful story of a young girl coming of age in the most difficult circumstances. However, her courage and empathy pull her through and readers will get lost in the landscape and characters portrayed. A most readable and enthralling story for this age group, this is a thoughtful and wise book, well worth adding to the canon of World War II fiction for middle grade readers. You can buy it here.