Book of the Week

Girl. Boy. Sea. by Chris Vick

girl boy seaIn recent years, many a children’s author has been inspired to write a story influenced by the movement of refugees across the globe. The images of children traipsing their way across a dusty road, young boys hitching rides in dangerous places, girls shouldering too-heavy bundles across their backs. The plight of the refugee is one of survival against all odds; the issues of scarred pasts, horrors witnessed, uncertain futures, a sense of not belonging, an awakening of identity – all pose questions. To whom do we belong, to where? Who are we? And nowhere is the power of the individual more diminished than when faced with the might and terror of the sea.

Vick deploys these ideas with dexterity; deviating from them, twisting them, and showing their import against the backdrop of an ordinary, fairly privileged British boy who must also fight for survival.

Bill is sailing off the coast of Morocco with his peers when a storm hits, and he’s shipwrecked and abandoned in the ship’s small rowing boat. As the rations run low, a girl clinging to a barrel comes into sight across the waves. Together Bill and Aya, a Berber, navigate together, waiting for rescue, desperate for other humans. But mainly there is the water, and just their two minds. With the power of storytelling, and the inevitable human will to survive, this is a tense moving read about the growing bond between two desperate and vastly different people, and the lengths humans will go in order to live.

Told in the timeframe of the days and nights the two spend at the mercy of the sea, sunburnt, hungry, and scared, and on the precipice of life itself, Vick interweaves their days with Aya’s stories of Shahrazad and the Arabian Nights. The way the heroine prolonged her life at the hands of the king by playing on the king’s curiosity – his desire to know what happened next, night after night. In the same way that Bill and Aya persevere: Aya by telling stories and Bill by listening. Cleverly, Vick does the same with the reader – pulling us along on the journey, making us wait for the next piece of the survival story.

As Aya and Bill have to overcome their language and cultural differences, Vick shows the reader their compassion for each other – something that grows as their understanding of each other grows. This basic coming together mirrors the way their lives have been stripped down to the essentials – water, food, shelter. But also company. With each other, their purpose is stronger, their agency secure, their will to succeed strengthened.

Vick is clever in his storytelling. As with many tales of shipwreck and survival, the cast of characters can be thin, and stuck at sea the scenery the same for miles, and yet Vick draws out every nuance of their day to day, the shift of their bodies in the boat, the patterns of the ocean.

In fact, it is this last that really dazzles – the power of nature, both the strength of the sun and the changeable features of the sea. The author has a detailed knowledge of marine biology, and here it is put to excellent use in the scene with the whale, which is evocative and incredibly dramatic, but also used in Vick’s descriptions of the interminable endlessness of the ocean, and the emptiness when viewed just from a bobbing rowboat.

In a nuanced middle section, Vick also manages to weave in some moral ambiguity – a dangerous situation in which he enhances cultural differences and behaviours, the threats to women and minorities, the power of knowledge but also the power of making assumptions about a person because of their background.

By the end, some of the detail is graphic in the extreme, and yet unbelievably tender. Vick doesn’t shy away from the devastating rawness of the situation, but by leading the reader there, he also explores the deepest emotions. There is love as well as courage, hope matching despair.

Life is stripped to its essence – what do we know, how safe are we, can we find compassion to be the support system for someone who doesn’t even think in our language, who can’t begin to fathom how different our way of life is? And yet, each is simply human.

Vick easily places us in another’s shoes by transplanting Bill from his relatively safe and easy life into that experienced by a refugee, by making his protagonist embrace the grit it takes to survive, and doing it all with taut and distinct prose. This is a powerful, starkly told novel, which holds its tension to the end, and although simple in its essence, is as profound as the depths of the sea.

Age 10+. You can buy it here. With thanks to Zephyr for the review copy.

Earth Swarm: A Hal Strider Adventure by Tim Hall

earth swarmDrones over airports, artificial intelligence making human work obsolete, new kinds of warfare. Whatever it is that keeps you awake at night, bear in mind that Tim Hall probably suffers from the same insomnia. Although he’s put his to good use in a new book for children aged about 10+ years.

A Terminator-style battle of humans versus machines is the premise of this new novel, and yet it is distinctive for Hall’s canny take on the science-fiction/dystopian tech aspect.

Hal Strider’s father owns a biomimetics company, designing drones and other airborne machines. He works hard, and is often away from home, leaving Hal and his sister Jess alone. When drones start to attack London, and Hal’s father is nowhere to be found, Hal and Jess must battle to figure out what the drones have to do with their father, and in the end try to save their country.

The drones are cleverly designed to mimic certain features of insects – and the different types of drones are like different types of bugs. There are hornets – mean angry buzzing fliers; and burrowers working like ants with highly damaging proboscises. Others are beetle-like, their mandibles adapted with metal saws. There’s even a pheromone-copier, the insects leaving a green dust on their victims to better seek them out and destroy them. Hall neatly uses insect vocabulary throughout to enhance this – cocoons, scavengers, infestation. Of course, with added dangerous explosives, metal components, added artificial intelligence and computer technology, they can adapt and evolve to suit the environment and their new circumstances, and they can do this at pace.

Which the book is all about – the action unfolds at extraordinary pace, just like watching an action or disaster movie – the different perspectives feel like a camera (or drone-mounted camera) zooming in and out, unfolding before the eyes, so that the reader sees the action from the air, below ground, street level etc. Inspiration must stem from 9/11 or similar real-time disasters and news incidents played out on the television, because the scenes presented in the novel are frightening and dystopic, but not so much removed from our own reality – tower blocks in London fold in on themselves just as the twin towers did, others topple, tube stations implode, people swarm away from disaster zones; Hall is great at the visual immersion of destruction.

But to capture the reader’s emotions, the characters need to have dynamism just as much as the drones, and Hall throws in a frisson of attraction between Hal and Sky, a daughter of another engineer at the biomimetics company, as well as the genuine sibling loyalty and protectionism between Hal and Jess. The teens all speak in snappy, urgent dialogue, which is both disaster-movie filmic (all action and command), but also with some realism in their interactions.

Unfortunately, the adult villains are somewhat two-dimensional, ruthlessly motivated by money, but it is the drones who incite the tension and danger, and feel like the real enemy.

Occasionally Hall dips into the drones’ minds/databases too, a fascinating style that lends itself more to computer code than novel-writing, but works well here in short bursts.

The novel is tightly structured, the essence simple, but the execution gripping, dynamic and unbelievably visual. Want to draw your child away from the video game – chuck this book at them – they’ll never look at a drone or insect in the same way again.

You can buy the book here. With thanks to David Fickling for the review copy.

Jemima Small Versus the Universe by Tamsin Winter

jemima small versus the universeIs it Love Island that perpetuates the non-stop pre-occupation with looks, eating and fitness? Or the sense that Insta is feeding into our kids’ idea of their appearance and how they would want to change it? If feels as if children’s focus on body image is as strong as ever.

Neatly fitting into this zeitgeist is the latest offering from Tamsin Winter, author of Being Miss Nobody, (a top hit in my school library with the Year 6s, who adore its modern take on bullying and its consequences, and read it as a key text for transition into high school and Year 7). Winter’s new book, Jemima Small Versus the Universe, also takes the reader into secondary school, and deals with bullying, but with a different focus and a very different protagonist.

Jemima Small’s surname is a bit of a misnomer. She’s actually rather the opposite in terms of her brain – she’s super brainy and an expert at quiz questions and random facts, and her personality too is large and joyful – she has a wicked sense of humour and a zest for embracing life. But for most people, they see that the misnomer lies in her body size, something pointed out rather distinctly when her school forces her to join a healthy eating group at lunchtime.

The focus on Jemima’s weight ranges from the blatant bullying and name-calling at school and on the bus (not made any easier by the fact that she’s been asked to join the school’s fat club), but also from the not-so-subtle looks exchanged by strangers, the whispers by fellow customers in the pizza restaurant.

Winter pulls attention to it as well, showing Jemima’s discomfort at squeezing into a booth or a bus seat, her excessive sweating in the face of pressure, her embarrassment at trying on clothes (think swimming costumes), and her dread of the upcoming school camping trip. But perhaps the most excruciating moment in the novel is science teacher Mr Shaw’s bananometer, which is intended to demonstrate estimation – he wants to see how many bananas class 8N weighs, and therefore needs to weigh each child and convert the weight to bananas – writing each person’s on the board. When I read this scene, I thought it was fairly implausible, but then after talking to some pupils in Y7 and Y8, discovered that some teachers do the daftest, and sometimes most insensitive things. In the book, this scene is spectacularly cringy but superbly effective.

However, Winter doesn’t just concentrate on Jemima’s weight. In fact, much of the book is taken up with Jemima’s larger-than-life personality, and her intelligence and wit. But we see, as the book progresses, the ease with which someone’s confidence can be knocked. Jemima should be happy and outgoing, but gradually others’ bullying increases Jemima’s lack of confidence in her body, which leads to a lack of confidence in her whole self. She can’t be happy in herself. And when the school is asked to take part in a television show – the general knowledge quiz show Brainiacs – she should be an obvious candidate, but her worry about being on television because of her size dominates her thoughts.

Winter’s knack at drawing a complicated 13-year-old is evident throughout – Jemima’s sassiness is often crushed by bullies, and the reader feels every blow, every slight with her. Cleverly, it’s not just a black and white issue though – Jemima faces jibes from her older brother Jasper, but there’s a nuance therein, as Jasper is both supporter and tease – there’s a deep love and affection, even an admiration that comes across under the layers of mischief. Indeed, Jasper and Jemima share a bond in that their mother left them when they were young and when emotions about this come to the surface, they are definitely a team.

It is the support network behind Jemima that enables her to find her confidence, and feel happy in herself – her father, who also has a nuanced relationship with her weight, seeing his daughter’s positive sides and yet aware that maybe he needs to take some responsibility for his daughter’s fitness and eating habits, and also Gina, the ‘healthy body guru’ at school, who initially is viewed with suspicion, but carefully comes good with her positive energy. Jemima’s best friend Mika is a key supporter too – a good friend who consistently boosts Jemima’s confidence.

This isn’t a novel that preaches losing weight, but it subtly shows the benefits of a healthy mind and healthy body and that the two are neatly intertwined. It also cheers the celebration of intelligence and brains, and perseverance.

The book is obviously issue-based, but it is so much more than this. It celebrates being happy with who you are, with not being afraid to use your strengths, and seeing each individual shining brightly in their own field.

An accessible contemporary novel that feels both of the moment, and yet bigger than that too.

For ages 11+. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for the review copy.

Anna at War by Helen Peters

Anna at war‘There aren’t too many of us left, and it would be a shame if our stories died with us.’

There is an abundance of adult’s and children’s books set during the Second World War. It’s a period of great interest to many people, and just about remains an era in living memory. However, as the last soldiers reach a very old age, and the last Holocaust survivors too, the valuable resource of living witnesses on whom we have so long relied for testament and truth, is whittling away. And it becomes even more important to cherish their memories, to hear survivors talk, to share their stories.

As someone who has worked on Holocaust books, I always approach those for children with trepidation. Will it warp the truth and tread dangerous ground, will it remain true to events, and will it represent what happened in a palatable way for children to comprehend? With true stories of shattering horror, this is always a difficult topic. But Helen Peters, with her extensive research, and able storytelling, has managed a book that both has a light touch and yet deals with a dark truth.

Apparently Peters came to write this  story about a Jewish girl on the Kindertransport by being inspired from a re-reading of Anne Frank, two survivors getting in touch with her husband, and also that she saw similarities in the plight of today’s refugees.

It’s always a puzzle why certain stories percolate in the mind of authors. Peters has no direct connection with any of the Kindertransport children, she isn’t Jewish herself, and after the controversy that still haunts (quite rightly) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, a certain wariness might creep into novelists’ desire to tell the stories of others. In fact, Catherine Bruton, author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria, highlighted just this in a recent blogpost for Booktrust.

I have no fear of others telling the stories of the Kindertransport. Many survivors have now died of old age, and many are not able or willing to write down their stories in a way in which children can relate to them or understand them. So, instead of ‘appropriating’ the stories, I would suggest that Peters is giving voice to them for us – using her skill and aptitude for writing children’s books to bring one such story to life.

A story within a story, Anna at War begins in modern day Year 6, in which Daniel is learning about World War II in school, and decides to ask his granny about it, knowing that she came over from Germany before the war. Bringing the story to current children’s contemporary landscape is a clever pathway in.

The grandmother’s story, Anna’s, starts in Germany in November 1938 on Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass, in which the Nazis attacked Jewish people and properties in a night of violence. Fearing for her safety, Anna’s parents secure her a ticket on the Kindertransport, an organised rescue effort that took about 10,000 Jewish children to the UK and placed them in foster homes. Quite often, entire families the children left behind in Germany perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Peters doesn’t hold back with her description of Kristallnacht. Told from Anna’s point of view, the night is terrifying; a child’s fear for her teddy abandoned on the bed in front of a Nazi Stormtrooper, a mother’s unearthly scream, the silent disappearance of family members. And then the terrifying decision, taken by Anna’s parents, to send her away, not knowing what will happen to any of them. The descriptions of the parting, and Anna’s journey to the unknown is authentic, heart-rending and gripping – told from a child’s perspective there is fear, but, with parents removed, the children on the train step up to the responsibility of caring for each other – a kind of team spirit and camaraderie. And also, of course, the descriptions of food – so important to every child.

Once in England, Peters not only describes the newness of the English countryside to Anna (she is taken in by farmers), but also brilliantly takes on home life during the war with all its detail – mixing the humdrum of every day with war time changes. Describing the Home Front, Peters tackles not only food shortages, but the wariness of foreign spies, the feelings about German refugees, the fear of invasion when the Nazis get close – for even reading this with hindsight – the reader gets the impression of the Nazis invading country after country and coming nearer and nearer. Although this may seem horrifying, the text is just gentle enough that it remains a children’s adventure story – the everyday juxtaposed with the war, so that it is both removed and yet very close.

And here, Peters lets rip with Anna’s adventure story – working in conjunction with British intelligence. Within the darkest depths of her story – her sad plight, her desperation for her parents to join her, her bullying at school for being German – comes a hopefulness and light as Anna begins to work in secret for the British.

At all times, Anna is presented as a sympathetic and very real character, with layers of resilience and yet a fearsome compassion. The storytelling is deft – the reader always feels in the hands of a supremely confident writer. And the ending, when it comes, is both good and bad. There isn’t perfect happiness – there were few happy endings for Jewish children at the end of the war, but in this novel there is a hope for the future, an insight into the effect of an enormous global event on the individual, a humanising of the victims. A message of remembering with sadness, but letting the memory forge a better future.

Helen Peters has clearly done meticulous research to write this magnificent historical fiction, and every step feels real and immersive, even Anna’s grand adventure in England, which makes the novel zip along at some pace with its spy adventure. The parts that deal with the Jewish experience and the Kindertransport are sensitively and delicately handled, taken from real life experiences, and it is the voices of the actual Kindertransport who sound loudly throughout.

This is a highly readable, engrossing adventure story. For anyone approaching World War Two for children, this is a fresh modern take on a classic genre, and a book that should have longevity and win prizes.

You can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow publishers for my advance proof copy. Recommended age 10+

The Dictionary of Difficult Words by Jane Solomon, illustrated by Louise Lockhart

dictionary of difficult wordsDo you want to be a sesquipedalian? Or perhaps a dabster at words? Maybe you watch Child Genius and marvel that the children can spell those long complicated words and yet you wonder what they mean and if Richard Osman is pronouncing them correctly? This delightfully packaged colourful book by lexicographer Jane Solomon aims to bring tough words to our attention, so that we can play with words, show off our knowledge, and win at scrabble.

In fact, although labelled as a dictionary ‘of difficult words’, that’s exactly what dictionaries used to be. Dictionaries didn’t begin life with Samuel Johnson, and they didn’t always contain a comprehensive list of all words in alphabetical order. The first dictionaries were word lists containing difficult words, usually adopted from other languages or about technical topics such as falconry for example, and people consulted them for difficult words that they hadn’t heard before.

And they didn’t necessarily have the pronunciation in them either. Luckily for us, Jane Solomon has included pronunciation too, so that the book can be read out loud from parent to child (without parent looking too stupid), or by the child themselves.

There are three types of words within the book. Words that an adult will probably know, and can elucidate for a young child, such as ogre and ombudsman. There are harder words that an adult will probably know but might find hard to define, such as paradigm, and then there are words that are really obscure, such as prestidigitation.

Each letter of the alphabet has about four pages of words and their definitions, although each is spread out with lots of space, and surrounded by wonderful full page illustrations, or just little illustrations next to the word – plethora is illustrated with a woman surrounded by more flying insects than one would want. Replica is accompanied by a full page image of an artist drawing a replica of the Mona Lisa.

The illustrations illuminate every page, and each letter tends to have its own colour palette – J is red and orange, and the style tends towards folksy, sometimes symbolic, but most of them are imbued with a wonderful sense of humour. ‘Jilt’ has a great illustration of a bride storming away, ‘juxtapose’ shows a girl in two types of weather.

The words included range across a spectrum of the parts of a sentence – adjectives and nouns mainly, with some verbs creeping in, and the words range across a huge number of subjects from science to the arts, types of animal to types of people, musical instruments, nature, and history.

This is fantastic for dipping into or reading right through. I’m determined not to show it to my children yet, until I’ve exhausted the x words in scrabble. There are also some wonderful notes at the beginning about the parts of speech, and how to work out what a word means and how to pronounce it, as well as some simple notes at the end about usage, and all written in a bouncy light tone, which feels friendly and yet still authoritative.

Personally, I am ebullient about this book, although haven’t reviewed it extemporaneously. Quite a frabjous book, and after reading it I can be grandiloquent in future, and quite a maven about the English language. For any age, but particularly 8+ years. Don’t be a mugwump – buy your own copy here.

The Dragon in the Library by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Davide Ortu

dragon in the libraryJames Daunt might be straddling the Atlantic by now being both Managing Director of Waterstones bookshop chain and newly appointed CEO of Barnes & Noble bookshop chain, but for those with an interest in books this side of the Atlantic, we seem to be getting something wrong.

The book market is going from strength to strength, but in these lean times of government cuts, the UK is pulling investment from libraries – those most important bastions of a civilised society.

In 2018, about 130 public libraries closed outright, whilst many others (as yet unnumbered) fell into voluntary hands with limited opening hours and services. Most recently children’s authors stepped in to protest against Essex County’s proposed closure of up to 44 libraries.

So it’s incredibly timely to read Louie Stowell’s excellent younger fiction novel, The Dragon in the Library, set in a library that is threatened with closure by a Simpsons’ Mr Burns-type villain, who wishes to turn the space into a shopping centre. He represents those who believe that economics rules over creativity and knowledge, and those for whom moneyed connections are deemed to be more important than empathy and curiosity. Who needs libraries, he says, when there is the Internet?

Our unlikely protagonist is Kit, a reluctant reader, who prefers climbing trees and getting messy outside to time spent inside, particularly in a library. But her two friends are desperate for the latest book in a series of books they are into, and they drag her along to the library. Once there, they stumble on a secret – the librarian is a wizard. What’s more, Kit herself seems to have magical powers, and the library is the most magical place of all.

Stowell goes to town on her magical tropes – there are librarian wizards, hidden creatures in secret stacks, portals from one magic place to another. Nowhere could be quite as exciting as the library, and she excels at extolling the absolute magic of reading and story – books literally take the reader into a different world. She also weaves a wonderful intertextuality in the book – for those who know their children’s literature there are nods to it all over the place from Ursula Le Guin to Baba Yaga to fairy tales and Harry Potter of course. There’s even a nod to the old trope of children drinking lemonade and eating something gingery (memories of Enid Blyton picnics come to the surface). Although the world-building of this magical structure of wizards and libraries seems a little confusing at first, it soon becomes apparent what’s at stake and why.

And it is the characterisation of the three children that makes the novel. Each child has his or her own attributes, goals and motivations, worries and anxieties. Kit and friends Alita and Josh feel very real, and support each  other in a wonderful triumvirate of camaraderie. Although Kit is the only wizard of the three, she’s the least ‘into’ books, and so it takes the help of her friends for her to be able to pursue her wizard path.

Faith Braithwaite is a wonderful role model of a wizard librarian and teacher/mentor to Kit. She is sassy and warm, modern and authoritative, understanding and knowledgeable, in essence, everything a librarian should be. Plus, in the times we live in, brave too.

So Stowell nods to our current preoccupations, not only in the fight for survival of the library, but also with dripped-in truisms about our modern obsessions with risk awareness, knowing what’s real and what isn’t, gender bias and diversity.

And cleverly, above all that, lies the essence of the novel, which is the celebration of the story behind the book. It is rare in a children’s book, particularly one set in a library, to have the protagonist as a reluctant reader, but here, although Kit hates reading aloud, and doesn’t particularly want to sit and read a book quietly either, Faith Braithwaite shows her the magic behind the book – the power of the story – the magic that’s contained within, especially when the reading is pleasurable and not graded or schooled in some way. How a story can teach and explore, delight and entertain, stimulate and encourage.

This is an exciting, pacey book for the 7-9 years (and beyond) readership, with superb neon packaging and a plethora of black and white illustrations throughout, which feel cartoonish and vivacious.

Oh, and there be dragons.

You can buy your copy here. Thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof.

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

garden of lost secretsThere’s a noticeable rediscovering of nature in current children’s books. It’s the theme of the moment, maybe inspired by the fact that today’s children spend less time outside, and certainly less time being wild than they used to, or perhaps because they have less awareness of where their food comes from, yet at the same time a creeping alarm over climate change and how nature can wreak havoc if not nurtured.

The Garden of Lost Secrets from debut author AM Howell takes the reader back to 1916, when World War I is wreaking havoc on the human population, and urban children were sent away from the cities after Zeppelin airships flew overhead. Twelve-year-old Clara is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Suffolk, not as a result of air raids, but rather because her father is convalescing after being gassed in the war.

Clara’s aunt and uncle are housekeeper and head gardener of an estate, living in a small cottage on the edge of the grounds. But rather than welcoming her kindly, her aunt in particular is austere and formidable, showing none of the kindness of her previous visits. What’s more, there’s a strange boy in the grounds at night-time, and an unopened letter from the War Office that Clara has intercepted in London and brought all the way with her.

As each day passes, more and more mysteries are presented, from the stealing of fruit from the gardens, to the appearance of mandarins in peculiar places, and a locked room in the house in which Clara is staying. Clara tries her best to be good, but the idea of solving the mysteries is too great a temptation to ignore, and before long her adventures are getting more than just herself into trouble.

This is a nostalgic, wonderfully atmospheric novel, taking the reader into a world in which, despite the war, children roam free, unhindered by parents and school, and everyday delights are simply the exploration of a large manor house’s grounds and greenhouses. Inspired by the real diaries from a 100 years ago of a gardener at Ickworth House in Suffolk, AM Howell has created a detailed, authentic imaginary tale.

The characterisation is spot on – from her pinafore to her small disobediences, Clara feels wholly from 1916; her head is consumed with worry for her family, but her heart is set on making everyone happy, and the reader is plunged inside her head, privy to all her thoughts. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, with the layers of society firmly in place, the staff and their duties, the soldiers exercising in the woods nearby, and the ever-present over-arching fear about the war that consumes everyone, from the distance noise of gunfire to the threat of Zeppelins.

An abundance of period detail, including the cultivation of exotic fruits (pineapples) in hothouses, the damp coal cellars, and the features of the town, all transport the reader firmly to 1916, and open up a world of England on the home front, seen from a child’s perspective. There’s both knowledge, and yet still a profound innocence.

There is definitely a classic feel to this book, bringing to mind such greats as Tom’s Midnight Garden, although The Garden of Lost Secrets has a modern bent with its themes of the natural world, child sleuthing, and bravery. It is far pacier than The Secret Garden and other Edwardian literature, layering questions and mysteries in each short chapter, and only revealing the depths of the secrets near the end. With fresh modern writing, a sublime use of simile where needed, and extolling the virtues of the power of true friendship, this is an excellent new children’s novel, which is both gripping and fun.

For children aged 8+ years. You can buy it here. With thanks to Usborne for the review copy.

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

good thievesFairy tales were often told as warnings or instructions on how to behave. Don’t play with the forbidden spinning wheel, don’t wander alone through the dangerous woods (even if you’re wearing a bright red cape), don’t break into someone else’s house and eat their porridge… Today’s tales are different. Children can do naughty, even bad things, if they are fighting evil or battling for the greater good. In essence, they can be good thieves – not good at thieving (although that too), but both good and a thief.

Set during the Prohibition in New York, during the 1920s, Vita (meaning life itself), has come over from England with her mother in order to set her grandfather’s affairs in order so that he can return home with them. It turns out, he has been cheated out of the ancestral home by an unscrupulous villain, Victor Sorrotore. Whereas her mother is all for signing paperwork and leaving swiftly, Vita is determined to win the house back for her grandfather, and recruits a pickpocket, and two apprentice circus performers to help her.

Set in a time well before house alarms and mobile phones, when picking locks is an asset for any thief, and children are left to their own devices, Rundell cleverly weaves period detail into her heist novel. Bootleggers and speakeasies, beautiful brownstone buildings and the intricacies of Carnegie Hall, as well as the specific grid system of New York, all provide a compelling and different backdrop for her children’s novel. And gender and race attitudes of the time are dropped into the story with deft awareness.

But it is the characters who win over the reader. They are bold and brave and keen to make their mark upon the world, always active, strong and memorable, but above all passionate about something, whether it be finding an emerald long since hidden in the ancestral house, or pursuing their vision of their future circus act, or simply surviving the mean streets of 1920s New York. They are fierce in their love for those they care about, and inspire a fierce loyalty from the reader.

Vita is slowed in movement by an episode of polio when younger, (a limp), and this hampers her throughout, although Rundell is keen to show the other children’s compassion, yet not pity for her. Vita is also a determined child with distinct attributes, which Rundell brings to life with little touches – Vita has ‘six kinds of smile, and five of them were real’, and she owns a supremely active way of thinking about things – Vita wears ‘a skirt you can kick in’.

Vita’s accomplices are well-drawn too, most particularly the circus apprentices, and this is where the story picks up zest and flair. Flying through the air, being an escape artist, understanding animals or throwing knives are all prized skills in both the ring and in life itself, and Rundell imbues her descriptions with colour and artistry, bringing the acts and performers to life.

As always, Rundell’s writing is swift and breathless, propelling the reader through the text like a glider through air, swooping and diving in and out of the plot, with short paragraphs and snippy dialogue. She uses simile and metaphor with the precision of a knife thrower. She cuts through excess, landing each word with specificity and wisdom. It is this apparent confident knowledge of the world, of higher truths, such as that ‘sometimes it was sensible not to be sensible,’ which gives her text its gravitas in the middle of scintillating storytelling.

With themes of loyalty and friendship, righting wrongs and clever thinking, this is a smart, pacey heist novel, with an inherent sense of wit throughout. Reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives in its wise way of children working together and outwitting evil adults, yet with the Rundell idiosyncrasies that mark her stories as being a cut above the rest. A must read. For 8+ years.

The Good Thieves publishes on Thursday 13th June, and you can pre-order it here. With special thanks to Jade at Bloomsbury Publishing for my review copy.

The House of Light by Julia Green

house of lightSometimes it’s the quiet books that have the most forceful impact. When I read Close to the Wind by Jon Walters, I understood that this understated book with its everyman tale of migration and movement was a thing of beauty. And now Julia Green has done the same with her timeless tale of stagnation and closed borders in The House of Light. As we move into a more politically uncertain time, filled with aggression and anxiety, this kind of book will resonate with young readers, but will also stir them with its moral integrity and innate sense of hope for the future.

Bonnie lives with her Granda on a wild coastland, where the sea is out of bounds and border guards patrol the area and keep tabs on who is attending school (and who isn’t!). When Bonnie is scavenging on the beach one day she finds an upturned boat, but realises it has been recently used. Before long, she discovers the owner – a bare-footed boy hiding from the authorities. In these lean times, he’s hungry and in need of shelter, so Bonnie harbours him, waiting for the day when he can take his freedom – and maybe she can too.

This beautifully written novel not only lays out the political foolhardiness of closing borders, denying citizens’ rights, and the rule of tyranny rather than compassion, but it also shows the differences that individual people can make. Bonnie learns more at home than at school, under the moral guidance of her Granda, and realises that it is appropriate to welcome strangers and mete out kindness rather than comply with rules that don’t make sense. In the current period of political language around migrants and refugees, this is particularly compelling.

More than this though, the book speaks to the wonder of creativity, and thus creative thinking. The schools impose strict timetables of arbitrary rule-learning rather than embracing any creativity of thought, and when Bonnie discovers a house in which art and liberty are celebrated, she sees that creativity and freedom are connected.

But most of all, it is the wildness of the natural world that shines through the book. The coastline is depicted with intense beauty as well as harshness – Bonnie learns the wonders of the woods near her house, the benefits of snow (over which a boat can be more easily pulled and when footsteps disappear), but most importantly, the use of nature to guide and to heal. Birds give Bonnie clues as to what’s going on, she learns to read the sea and the creatures within, and she understands when to take from nature for survival and when to let it grow and flourish. This is a timely children’s novel set in a world in which medicine no longer exists for people like Bonnie, and she must turn to nature for its healing plants and tinctures. Moreover, energy supplies and mass food production have disappeared too – and it is up to Bonnie and Granda to seek from the animals and from the land. This is about people in a modern world re-learning the earth, its natural resources and its wonders.

This is children’s literary fiction, and Green steadily guides Bonnie and the reader through the book with the metaphor of light highlighting principles. When to break the rules, and how the individual is important. Bonnie’s relationship with both the boy, Ish, and her Granda are drawn tenderly and evocatively. The reader feels her doubts and pain, her love and instincts. Although this is a simple story, it is well told, with underlying depth and memorable characters, and a tangible setting. It sears its message and vision into the reader’s mind.

The novel is indicative of the courage and hope this generation will need to take into the future, and is a hidden gem. I heartily recommend letting it light up your young reader. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by Helen Crawford-White. With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

The Golden Butterfly by Sharon Gosling

the golden butterflyWhat is it about the Victorian era that makes reading about it quite so appealing? Is it because it was the age of massive advances in science and technology, changing the world of communication, transportation and work? Perhaps it was the changing ideas about the treatment of women, or the recognition and shifting ideas of class and social mobility, industrialisation, the expansion of empire….

Amazingly, and with some skill, Sharon Gosling covers a lot of this ground in her novel, The Golden Butterfly, set in 1897, although most of the themes are subtly lurking behind the scenes.

Luciana’s grandfather was the Magnificent Marko, a leading magician of his time, who performed the most astonishing, spectacular trick called ‘The Golden Butterfly’. Since he dramatically departed the stage, no one has come close to performing a trick quite as extraordinary. After his death, the leader of the Grand Society of Magicians comes searching Luciana’s house for secrets of the trick, setting Luciana on a treasure hunt of her own. Before long, she’s embroiled in magic herself, ready to protect her grandfather’s legacy, and set to show the world that women have just as much right to perform magic as men.

Luciana is a strong female character – as are many protagonists in today’s current crop of middle grade (8+ years) fiction, but she has more to prove in her era, striving against being cast as ‘other’ or a ‘witch’ in order to practise a trade that has been embraced by theatre audiences, but only when performed by a man.

But all people are not who they seem. In fact, it is this very idea – the art of appearances and illusions – that stalks the novel, magic being about deflection and distraction. Luciana comes to discover that it is the person behind the façade that counts.

Where better than to set her cast of characters then, than in a theatre, with the fluidity of appearance and reality, front of stage and backstage. Throughout her novel, Gosling plays with the idea of the mask people show to the world, and what’s really underneath, as well as how distraction aids magic and can lead people in the wrong direction in real life too, and lastly, the power play involved with rivalry and ambition.

Luciana adventures with a trust sidekick, the loveable Charley, son of a housekeeper and thus of a different social class from Luciana. Warned off him by her grandmother, Luciana learns that it is not only the gender she is born into but the social class that enables or disables her. Gosling builds a wonderful friendship between the pair, despite their differences, showing that loyalty and shared history counts more than social status, but she also draws them into a world of polarisation – the sumptuous houses of the wealthy with their butlers and warm beds juxtaposed with the ragamuffin children lurking by the railway stations and the workers in public houses.

With a clever treasure trail set in motion from the beginning, Luciana moves through Victorian England encountering all these people, using different modes of transport, and learning to look behind the curtains.

She’s also an orphan – raised by grandparents, and part of her quest revolves around finding out who her parents might have been. This is visually evocative in that she has a recurring fear of fire, stemming from something in her childhood. Linking this to the secret use of lighting magnesium during a magic act to create a distraction (a bright white light like the original photographers used in their ‘flash’), and the science of the era is brought to life.

With her confident prose, Gosling is adept at describing the magic tricks, not only the strange contraption puzzles that Luciana’s grandfather leaves behind to solve (reminiscent of modern rubik’s cubes), but also in her description of the golden butterfly act itself and its behind the scenes mechanism. Her word precision, her specificity, is inherent on every page, so that the Victorian theatre world seems very real to today’s audience, each word as carefully placed as the cards in a magic trick.

Although the plot was guessable (by me at least), it does not spoil enjoyment of the novel. Like seeing a magic trick, it is the enigma of how it is done. Gosling imbues her world with colour and vibrancy, fully embracing the appearance and reality of her plot and using the built-in drama of anticipation and excitement of a theatre’s magic show to give her book its dramatic arc. The fun is in seeing how Gosling is going to reveal the truth – how the final trick is going to be played.

The cover design is divine, the chapters are short and sharp, the villains shady, the final reveal heart-warming, cheerful and looking to the future. A great novel, showing that although we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, there’s still a way to go, and that as Houdini said, ‘my brain is the key that sets my mind free.’ Books, like magic, dazzle and make you think. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Stripes books for the review copy. Cover art by Pip Johnson.