Book of the Week

Frostheart by Jamie Littler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to Puffin for a review copy.

Furious Thing by Jenny Downham

furious thingAre you angry? Is it justifiable anger? And when is it appropriate to express it? This is an even harder question when you’re a woman. Just ask Serena Williams.

It was difficult to listen to the radio interview with Sally Challen a couple of weeks ago, the wife jailed for her husband’s murder and subsequently released after it was established she had suffered from coercive control. Emotional abuse is often hidden in plain sight.

For a child, it is even worse – how can children distinguish correct behaviours in relationships if they have only ever experienced the bad? In a time of fake news and half-truths, of increasing polarisation and threatening language, it’s more important than ever that young adults can dissect the truth, can learn to trust their instincts, and can distinguish between right and wrong, between whom to believe and whom not to believe.

Fifteen-year-old Lexi has always been told she has a problem with anger. In fact, if she just learned to control it, apparently, all would be well. Lexi lives with her mother, her mother’s fiancé John, and younger half-sister Iris. As her mother’s wedding draws near, Lexi can’t seem to help erupting, especially in scenarios involving her soon-to-be stepdad.

And then it spills over at school, at first in small incidents, and then culminating in violence. When she throws a chair through a window at school, she realises that her rage is out of control, and quite probably misdirected.

Of course, this isn’t her only preoccupation. There’s school, and romantic interests. At school, Lexi auditions for The Tempest, and Downham weaves an intelligent dissection of the play and its characters into her novel, as well as exploring the interactions between staff and pupils. Lexi’s romantic issue is more complicated, seeing as she has confusing feelings for John’s son from his first marriage. This is handled with great sensitivity in the novel, Lexi to-ing and fro-ing on whether feelings are returned, and Downham evokes a lush confusion from both parties as to what they feel when.

And all the time, threaded neatly throughout the story, is the slowly dawning realisation for the reader, and also more slowly for Lexi, that Lexi herself isn’t the problem in the family dynamic, John is. This is abuse, albeit not physical, just a slow grinding-down of self-awareness, confidence and trust.

Each piece of dialogue feels authentic, from the manipulative language John uses, to the timidity of Lexi’s mother, depending on whom she is speaking to, and the dialogue of all the youth, which feels fresh, spikey and young. Where Downham excels is in the gaps between the words – the pauses and silences, the loud unspoken.

Beautifully observed, this is particularly established in how the novel captures the confusing metamorphosis as the fifteen year olds morph from innocence to sexual beings, both in how they view themselves, and also in how they are viewed. In a party scene, Downham captures the essence of this with deep understanding in its complexity – exploring the scents of the bar, nitrous oxide, the whiff of sexual power, particularly in that although sexual allure leaks from the girls, they often don’t understand it themselves. And therefore it’s even harder to avoid it being abused.

This is a masterfully written novel, as one would expect from Downham. The sort of YA that the industry should be aiming for – with depth and nuance, and still holding extraordinary pacing, as well as pulsing with energetic prose. There is an intense subtlety in the slow deterioration of Lexi’s sense of self, made even more compelling as the reader discovers that not even everything Lexi says can be trusted – she may be narrating the story, but she’s not entirely reliable.

There are some lovely periphery characters, especially well-meaning adults, who also feel conflicted and don’t have all the answers, from John’s ex-wife to Lexi’s mum’s friend.

In the end, Lexi uses her anger as a force for good, and sees what’s really important in a family dynamic – as does the reader.

At times this is an uncomfortable read. Lexi makes bad decisions time and time again, and the people around her don’t help. But by the end, there is immense growth and understanding. For those who want more nuanced YA, and a better grasp of what constitutes a healthy relationship, this is an excellent and dynamic read.

With thanks to David Fickling Books for the early review copy. You can buy it here.

In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido

in the key of codeDid you catch the GQ picture storm in June of this year? The magazine published a photo of about 20 top Silicon Valley executives, including the founder of LinkedIn, on a trip to Italy. Then, someone spotted that the only two women in the picture had been Photoshopped in. Without them it would have been an all-male photo. As it happens, those two women did actually attend the trip, but the story has been taken as a metaphor for the tech industry as a whole.

The world still seems to be failing in its attempts to attract women into STEM jobs. (Let’s not discuss yet the myriad of ways in which the world is failing women in other areas). Apparently, girls tend to lose interest in future tech jobs at about age 11, and the reasons stem from lack of adult support, to peer pressure about girls’ roles, and an impression that tech careers are lacking in creativity.

Does Aimee Lucido know this? A software engineer as well as author, she’s produced a wonderful free verse novel, In the Key of Code, for age 10+ that meshes music, poetry, and coding to tell the story of twelve-year old Emmy, starting a new school in San Francisco, but feeling isolated and invisible. When she starts computer science classes, she begins to see patterns between her musical background and coding, and inspired by her new teacher, Mrs Delaney, and a burgeoning friendship, she comes to accept her new home, and find a new passion.

Lucido cleverly interlaces her themes both through her text and also in the way she writes her text. The novel is written in free verse – each chapter a piece of poetry with a firm rhythm. In first person narrator voice, Emmy writes her story in fairly typical teen book free verse (see Kwame Alexander books, for example), explaining her move to a new city, her parents’ love for music, and her feeling that she just doesn’t quite fit.

Even in these first poems though, there is a thread of musical tuning running through them; metaphors and similes in the text, rhythms and rhymes stylistically. When Emmy starts to learn to code at school, Java programming language starts weaving its way into the verse, and before long computer code, poetry, and music are all fusing together to create startlingly emotive free verse poems, which create tension and anticipation in the writing:

“The semicolon is the period at the end of a line-
of code.

It’s the space between one perfect moment;”

and on the next page:

“whatever comes next.”

Lucido’s book doesn’t break out into unreadable Java code, even though terminology is gradually introduced. A novice can easily read it, and learn, and through the rhythms and timbre of each poem, and the collective accumulation of them, they form into an entire narrative structure with a dramatic arc and a great storyline.

The characters zing off the page – there’s Emmy, shy and struggling to find her voice, and her new friend Abigail, also struggling to find her voice, despite seemingly being popular with the ‘in-crowd’ of kids.

Most inspirational to Emmy and Abigail, is the character of the computer science teacher, Mrs Delaney, who manages not only to inspire and impart knowledge, but to embed herself in their hearts.

By writing code-poetry, Lucido mixes science and creativity – producing something that’s exactly what tech companies need – that crucial fusing of imagination and know-how in order to spark innovation. The arts play a key role in our advancement of technology.

And Lucido produces Java script full of humanity. The book is inherently about finding out one’s real self and about friendship – human connections being the driving force in learning, attainment, creativity and tech.

Readers can be music or code novices, and still see a beauty in the poetry, with lots of emotion to keep them gripped, and intelligence to steer them through. The use of white space within and between the poems is as much a pause to breathe and absorb as it is to express and articulate and keep to rhythm. And there is a huge differentiation between the poems, depending on plot, and mood of narrator.

This is a great read – showing the importance of collaboration in life and in tech, the power of inspirational teachers, the purpose of friendship, and searching for one’s own true voice. It brings humanity into tech, and tech into humanity. A rich, absorbing read, and a lovely story to boot.

With thanks to Walker Books for the early review copy. In the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido publishes on 3rd October in the UK. You can buy yours here.

Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue by Paula Harrison, illustrated by Jenny Lovlie

kitty and the moonlight rescueAll children, except one, want to grow up fast. I think about this (totally adapted) first line from Peter Pan every day in the school library, as readers from Foundation Stage and Key Stage One (children aged between 5 and 8), eschew picture books and red-spine-stamped early readers for ‘real books’. ‘Can we read these?’ they say, holding up a tome. They can barely stagger under the weight of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (636 pages long), or the encyclopedia they’ve dragged down from a shelf above their heads, collapsing beneath it. Of course, a librarian never says no, but rather nudges towards something more appropriate.

So it is with relief and joy that I stumble across new books such as Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue, the first in a series of six. (Number two, Kitty and the Tiger Treasure, is also published this September, with a view to getting impatient children hooked). The series follows in the tradition of Isadora Moon, Claude, Marge in Charge, Amelia Fang, Daisy and more.

Kitty wants to be like her superhero Mum, but she’s scared of the dark and doesn’t feel so brave. She dons a costume and pretends to be a superhero within the safe confines of her house. But when a desperate cat pitches up needing superhero Mum, and yet Mum is already out on a mission, Kitty must fill her shoes. Will she find her inner strength, and also her cat-inspired super powers, including feline hearing and eyesight, in order to solve the mystery of the strange noise coming from the clocktower?

This is a great example of pithy fiction for younger readers. Illustrated throughout in two-tone colour, there are enough illustrations to keep children interested, but also a bulk of text on each page to make them feel like grown-up readers. This is the age at which you want children to make reading a habit and also a passion, and so the plot needs to be pacey, the characters loveable, and the ideas sparkling.

This ticks those boxes, with add-ons. There are themes of friendship and loyalty, but there is also the building of confidence and self-worth. The parents aren’t absent – Mum, although on a mission, is the ultimate feminist superhero – out saving lives and yet also present with her children. Dad too is portrayed well. He isn’t a superhero, but also isn’t inept or bumbling. He takes care of the children, shown more in illustration than in text, but completes a great family picture, with incidental details thrown in, such as that he is the maker of Kitty’s costume.

Having a superhero with animal features is both interesting and knowledge-imparting. Kitty’s Mum can see in the dark, climb walls and balance on rooftops, and Kitty begins to inherit the same skillset. At the back of the book, the author has neatly described some super facts about cats that inspired her imagined superhero – such as their powerful sense of smell and their fast reflexes.

There’s humour too, an important feature to keep children reading, and the illustrations are fully imagined – small details abound from loose shoelaces to Kitty’s incredible bed with bookcase beneath. Which mother wouldn’t want to be depicted as a slinky catwoman in the way that Lovlie illustrates Kitty’s mother! The domestic scenes contrast well with the superhero moments – Kitty’s landing on the rooftop is expressive and daring.

With just enough adventure to offset the cosy domesticity, and more cats than one could wish for, this is a gentle, well-informed text for the age group. Purrfectly plotted. You can buy it here.

The Wonders of Nature by Ben Hoare, illustrated by Angela Rizza and Daniel Long

wonders of natureThis summer I came across the sacred Datura wildflower. A poisonous perennial, it has hallucinogenic properties, the Zion park ranger told me. What’s more, it blooms at night, starting early evening and typically closing around noon, and has features that are iridescent in UV light, but hidden from human sight.

Wildlife journalist, Ben Hoare, in his latest children’s book for Dorling Kindersley, doesn’t cover hallucinogens thankfully, but does open the readers’ eyes to a host of wonders, in sections of the book neatly separated into  rocks and minerals, microorganisms, plant life and animal life.

Carefully curated to sample the spread of wonders in the natural world, the rocks and minerals section highlights key examples from hard to soft; the animal section picks a variety from simple organisms to complex animals. At first, the choice of minerals and species may seem random, but closer inspection shows Hoare attempting to showcase vastly different features and strengths across the natural world.

Aimed at a young child, age 7+, Hoare’s text reads simply but is imbued with enthusiasm and creativity. Each entry has two descriptive paragraphs and although they do give the essential facts on the item – Hoare detailing that the Iris grows from a bulb – he makes smart analogies too: comparing the lines or dots on petals to landing lights on an airport runway, giving insects a pathway into the nectar. He also branches out into myth and story – in Ancient Greece, Iris was the goddess of rainbows.

This flair for interest and creativity extends to each entry, even on the snail. A pull-out quote on this page points to the fact that a snail has ‘not one, but several tiny brains’, bringing out the author’s sense of humour. On living stones, which thrive in a desert habitat, Hoare points out that desert creatures such as tortoises often miss this source of food, as the plants are only easy to spot after rain falls.

A mix of photograph and illustration, the design of the book serves the purpose of ‘wonder’ well. In the plant section, there is often up-close photography of a flower or leaf, and an illustration of the entry at a distance, to give the reader the impression of the shape of the entire tree or plant. Zoomed in, some plant leaves can look like artworks themselves; Traveller’s tree resembling a psychedelic poster, although there are no hallucinogens here.

When the design pushes through to meet the text, the reader knows they are onto a winner. Nowhere in the book is this more blatant that the spread on the Ghost plant. This double page entry is faded to a ghostly grey, both in photograph and illustration, with a droopy look, definitely looking less than lively. But the text zings with life – this fascinating plant is almost transparent, and Hoare explains how it doesn’t need photosynthesis (explained and phonetically spelled out), using a mix of exclamation and questions to get his point across. The pulled-out fact tells the reader not to pick the plant because it turns black.

At first glance, this may seem like a book with little text on each full page picture. But reading it not only gives the reader knowledge, it inspires true wonder at the natural world.

For me, books are exquisite items in themselves. But as if to emphasises the point of the wonder of the natural world, the production of this book has been handled with a sense of elegance too – gold edges to the pages, a tough hardback with a gold foiled cover. A fantastic stand-alone title, but also a great companion to its sister title An Anthology of Intriguing Animals. You can buy The Wonders of Nature by Ben Hoare, published by DK here.

With thanks to DK for the review copy. The book is available at £20.00

The Night’s Realm by Nick Ward

nights realmWe are such stuff as nightmares are made on. And this is a nightmarish novel. Not in the way it’s written or illustrated, which is pure delight, but rather the spooky story, and the frightening concept.

Like many children, Billy is scared of the dark. But it isn’t something he wants to admit. So when his best friend invites him for a sleepover, he has to think of a reason to back out, even though he’d love to attend. Then his fear of the dark becomes all-encompassing, and he gets transported into the ‘Night’s Realm’, an evil domain in which an evil magician rules, a magician whose very essence is kept alive by feeding off children’s fears. And things get very very dark.

Although printed with fairly large font size, and heavily illustrated throughout, what might seem like a read for a youngish child has many scary elements. Which supposedly, is what happens when the writer transplants all his child characters to a world in which their worst nightmares become real. So there are threatening jackdaws, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock film, crawlers (little men with jagged teeth who crawl on all fours), witches and warlocks, Shadowmen (gigantic men made from dust), and more. Add to this the sophisticated vocabulary – words such as cacophonous and cadaverous leapt off the page – this is a novel for readers with sophisticated taste, those with a penchant for spooky stories, or for older yet reluctant readers who want to be brave in the face of some horror.

Above all, it is the ideas behind the story that haunt. When Billy is captured, the daytime turns to perpetual night, and although his town looks familiar, it is empty of adults and devoid of all life, other than the night creatures. Doors are locked, shops closed, factories stopped. And over it all rules a cruel magician who manipulates children with magic, and wants them to be as scared as possible.

The most potent moment is when Billy is taken to his cell in the fortress, which appears to be exactly like his bedroom at home, with sunlight behind the curtains. Of course, it’s all fake and the momentary comfort is swept away.

The illustrations add to the dystopian feel of the novel. In fact, at times, it seems as visually authentic as a high-end computer game – the fortress as detailed as a multi-room escape game. The children’s eyes are large – not cute as Disney eyes – but hollowed out and haunting; each illustration adding a wonder and depth to the story being told.

There are some captivating moments – the children’s attraction to light like that of moths fluttering around an electric light bulb, the unspoken fears even among peers, the loss of identity the more subservient to the magician they become. Multiple allusions to other novels abound – from the tempting Turkish delight, to the room of birds in cages, which doesn’t feel like a huge leap from the Harry Potter series. Plays on words too, most particularly the title, for it is a sword in a stone that Billy needs to find in order to execute his victory. There is also a clever use of childhood itself, as Billy ingeniously uses everyday items to aid his run for freedom – a coat hanger, chewing gum etc.

Overall though, the novel’s overriding message is that nothing wondrous comes from staying in comfort zones. Billy has a defence against the darkness, a resilience against the magician, manifest in a physical object at first, but one that serves as an extended metaphor as to what makes each individual tick. At the denouement, the reader becomes aware that everyone is afraid of something, but that facing one’s fears is the first step to overcoming them – and that fears can be overcome.

By stating the fear, and with the support of others, Billy’s confidence grows until in the end he doesn’t even need a physical object to overcome the magician – self-confidence wins the day from the night.

And all for the sake of attending a friend’s sleepover! For age 8+, although if you’re reading it to your child at bedtime, you might need to leave a night light on…

You can buy it here. With thanks to David Fickling for the advance copy.

The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle

the land of roarNarnia lives on the in public imagination, almost 70 years after the publication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. According to a poll conducted in August by eBay UK, the book tops the list of the most popular books among adults in the UK. But it’s not just among adult readers that this tale of an icy land where it’s winter but never Christmas, lives on. In fact, it lives on with adult writers too and penetrates our children’s literary inheritance.

For those of you who were away in August, Waterstones book of the month was The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan. In this astoundingly bright, bold and fearsome novel, protagonist Arthur and his sister Rose enter the Land of Roar not through a wardrobe but through a Z-bed.

Staying with their grandfather over the summer, eleven-year-old twins Arthur and Rose start to clear out his attic, throwing away their childhood mementos and old toys. Arthur is reminded of the make-believe land they once played, the Land of Roar, in which they had both things they loved (mermaids, ninjas and so forth), and yet also was filled with their fears. But Rose is more sophisticated now – hanging with her friends, fiddling with her phone, shunning her childhood imaginings.

When their grandfather mucks about with the Z-bed, he is pulled into the portal and vanishes. Which means Arthur must follow to rescue him – except that Roar isn’t real – it only existed in their imaginations. Or did it? And how to convince Rose that she’s needed too?

The ingenuity of McLachlan’s writing lies not so much in her land of warmongering dragons, the Lost Girls, ninja wizards and frightening scarecrows, although her world-building is impressive, but her wit and intelligence lie in her use of time passing, nostalgia, childhood and old age. For this is a fantasy adventure that pulls on the essence of what it means to imagine, of what it means to grow up; and how our fears fade, and then manifest as other, different things in adolescence. In this way, it strongly conjures the literary landscape of Peter Pan.

Roar is representative of Arthur’s and Rose’s younger selves, from the ‘unsophisticated’ map, which labels areas such as ‘the bad side’ and doesn’t conform to geographical rules, to the props within, the relics of the fun they once had: the language ‘Obby Dobby’, which is just like a childhood language we all spoke (in which you insert extra letters into English words); the ninja wizard’s collection of left-behind toys from Arthur, such as his fidget spinner.

The ‘Bad Side’ of Roar reveals both the fears of their childhood, and also the youngsters’ growth. The enemy of the land is Crowky, a frightening scarecrow with Coraline-esque button eyes. And whereas once it was their fears that built him, their fear of the dark or of crows, frogs and heights; playing with those fears was a thrill, ‘like listening to a ghost story’. When the children re-enter Roar as adolescents, the fears feel more real, the scare feels deeper, there’s worry there too. The world feels more serious, even an imaginary one.

McLachlan has oodles of humour, and she liberally sprinkles this throughout the novel, firstly through the imaginary world, such as labelling a bit off the coast of Roar with small islands as ‘Archie Playgo’, and her naming of the rocking horse that comes to life as ‘Prosecco’, but she niftily handles the added bonus of bringing teenage sarcasm and sardonic humour to Arthur and Rose’s new entry into the land. Arthur apologises to Prosecco that Rose hasn’t come too, choosing to go to Claire’s Accessories instead.

Of course the darkness comes with the increased power of their childhood nightmare Crowky, whose power has grown since Rose and Arthur have neglected Roar. But their neglect has had other consequences too – the land is suffering from sink holes, and cracks appear; as the land leaks from the children’s memories and thoughts, so it literally disappears. This extended metaphor speaks to how we neglect those imaginings as we age – how things in childhood get pushed to the back of our minds, and yet to stop the ‘bad’ overcoming us all, we still need creativity and imagination as we grow older.

One of the things I most admired about the novel was the changing relationship between the siblings. The hints of how they used to play together as young children, the changes that occur as they grow, the frustrations with each other for growing too quickly or not maturing fast enough – mutual exasperation that their attitudes are no longer in tandem. But most of all the camaraderie, the need for one another, and the protective loyalty that exists – a sibling understanding of shared pasts and families, and the knowledge that they’re entwined, no matter what.

There’s also a fierce protectiveness of their grandfather – a key figure to them – wise by dint of his willingness to play and experiment, to break rules and embrace freedoms. He’s an embodiment of why creativity and memory are still important as we age. (Who wouldn’t love a grandad who encourages throwing things from the attic window into the garden as a way of clearing a room).

Although I saw an early proof of the book with artwork to come, the illustrations by Ben Mantle that were shown were rather spectacular. The finished version is a treat to behold – Mantle captures the dichotomy of Roar – the beauty of it and yet its profound danger.

This is an engrossing and vividly-imagined story, with messages that stretch from story to the real world; themes of imagination, but also feminism and adolescence – a growth in mindset as well as imagination. For children aged 8+ (and for adults too).

You can buy it here. With thanks to Egmont for an early review copy.

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.