Book of the Week

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaOne of the most important skills reading teaches us, albeit subliminally most of the time, is that age-old question: ‘What must it feel like to be you?’, or ‘empathy’. The word empathy stems from the Ancient Greek, em – in, pathos – feeling. In fact, our usage of the word has increased, in particular from the 1950’s onwards. This is interesting, as most people might feel that in recent years our feelings of empathy have waned.

Because of course, as our world becomes more global, our acceptance of others seems to decline. Despite the fact that our high streets look the same, we drink the same brands, own the same clothes and do the same jobs, we keep recognising and highlighting our differences. Sometimes recognising difference is good, but when used against people, it is not. Identity politics has never seemed such a loaded term. Setting us straight, is this insightful and winning new novel from Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Eleven-year-old Aya could live anywhere. She has a father and mother, a little brother, and a huge passion for ballet, which she learns under the tutelage of Madame Belova in her dance studio near home. However, that’s Aya’s previous life. In Aleppo. Since the war, she has had to flee, and the reader meets her as she seeks asylum in Britain. When she stumbles across a ballet class in the community centre in which her family is seeking help with their asylum application, the instructor recognises her talent, and her situation. Before long, Aya is fighting for a ballet scholarship, a place in Britain, and contact with her lost father. Luckily for her, she has more than one empathetic English resident on her side.

This nuanced gentle portrayal of a young Syrian girl is a fantastic read and an eye-opening book. Bruton successfully shows her roundedness and that of the characters around her. Aya has had to take over and assume a great deal of adult responsibility in the wake of her mother’s traumatised state – the loss of Aya’s father and the journey has been too much. Aya takes great care of her baby brother Moosa, fights for their rights, and also tries to navigate the delicate balance of still being a child, and adapting to life in a foreign country.

The girls in the ballet class are also beautifully brought to life, but play a very distinct role within the novel. It is their attitudes (and changing attitudes) to Aya that inform the reader and will start to pose questions in the reader’s mind. Here, with their youth and naivety making them susceptible both to what they’ve been told by elders, but also making them more open to Aya, they come to discover the differences between refugees and asylum seekers, but also come to understand the cyclical role of history through their ballet teacher, Miss Helena.

Aya’s situation calls to mind Miss Helena’s own past – her own refugee status in the Second World War, as she fled Nazi Germany and found a home in England. Her experiences, although very different from Ava’s, show how time moves on, but the same wounds are inflicted. By that token though the same wrongs can be corrected – through kindness and empathy:

“Perhaps if history was always repeating itself – wars and families fleeing their homes; persecution, refugees – then other stories recurred too: stories of kindness, sacrifice, generosity.”

Through this very stark quote, Bruton also pulls the reader into the stories that have preceded No Ballet Shoes in Syria, and those to which she refers in her introduction – Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, the books of Lorna Hill and Pamela Brown and many more.

Alongside Aya’s gradual acceptance into the ballet class, Bruton flashbacks through Aya’s journey from Syria to Britain – interlaying the text with memories. This slow revealing of Aya’s past is like the slow learning of friendship – a gentle discovery of the other person, helping us to know and understand what they have been through, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

At the same time as the reader’s growing awareness of Aya’s past, Aya slowly learns about the country she’s come to – the accents, the food, the different ways the children live and behave, and also the similarities – in particular the global language of dance.

But perhaps my favourite element of the novel is the idea of community. It is not carelessness that sets the world of form-filling and yet also ballet classes within a community centre. Bruton cleverly shows the reader all the different forms of community that exist, and how useful they are for us as human beings to reach across the divide. The community of asylum seekers themselves, helping and looking out for each other, and slowly replacing the community they have lost in leaving home. The community of ballet dancers, all helping each other to improve and succeed. The community of global dance – the fact that Miss Helena recognises and knows about Aya’s dance teacher from Syria. And of course, the global community of human beings and how by recognising ourselves in each other, we can come together and accept and invite difference.

To assuage any fears about getting Aya’s voice wrong, Bruton took the opportunity to work with Bath welcomes Refugees and Bristol Refugee Rights in the writing of the book and her research sparkles throughout. She’s also the alter ego of Cate Shearwater, the author of Somersaults and Dreams, and her ability to see dance, creativity, and sport as outlets of expression and emotion are very apparent.

The book is published on 2nd May and you can pre-order and buy this story of hope here.

The Disconnect by Keren David

the disconnectI’m as guilty as the next person with regards to phone use. My weekly checker tells me if I’ve spent more time on my phone this week than last, and I feel relief when the numbers move down. Should we feel guilty though? Is phone use a bad thing? The headlines flip-flop back and forwards with regards to children and screen time – children need to be tech savvy, ready for a changing workplace, and yet social media is damaging their mental health, their brains are rewired with over-use of the phone, their concentration spans zapped. Which of the screaming headlines is true? It’s a question that dogs this moment in time – perhaps even more than Brexit.

Keren David has written a fascinating novella that more than lives up to its topical and intriguing premise: Could you live without your phone for six weeks?

When an eccentric entrepreneur challenges teenagers in a school to give up their phones, offering a cash incentive (£1000 for six weeks), it’s not wholly surprising that many don’t participate. Esther gives it a try, wanting to use the money to visit her sister and father in America. But of course, with most of her friends on their phones, what will she miss, and can she stay the course?

Esther is introduced to the reader as an average Year 11 student: she takes validation selfies – seeking her friends’ advice on what to wear before going out, she has major FOMO (fear of missing out), and she uses her phone to stay in close contact with her older sister, who has moved to New York. She misses her terribly and their relationship is crucial to her wellbeing.

So when she gives up her phone, she is inevitably going to miss out on friends’ interaction and gossip, and on her relationship with her sister – after all, old-fashioned snail mail is exactly that – slow. But David goes much deeper, exploring all the elements she misses out on by sacrificing her phone, and all the benefits she reaps.

Yet this isn’t an essay of pros and cons, this is a concisely written story about fully-rounded people with whom the reader can identify, with advantages and disadvantages of life without a mobile phone carefully extrapolated and interwoven into the story. What’s more, David probes deeper into the more nuanced arguments around social media – whom to trust, tech giants’ motivations for making their products and the software within, and issues around privacy.

This last issue is particularly pertinent to one character – a crossover from another Karen David book called The Liar’s Handbook, in which she investigated undercover policemen who fathered children with unsuspecting women. The boy, River, features as the protagonist in that story, and a secondary character in this, and David deftly explores his ongoing sense of mistrust of those in positions of authority, and his influence on Esther, in a lovely twist on the ‘disconnectivity’ in the title here, seeing as the books are so neatly connected.

There’s a lively authenticity to the setting here too – London feels very much alive, and in particular the café that Esther’s stepfather runs, and David deftly depicts the Middle Eastern food with mouth-watering descriptions.

The little details are carefully thought out – Esther and her peers are self-conscious about using their voice – so much of their interaction comes from texting and written language – and they are also self-conscious about their appearances, stemming from a constant need to monitor who says what about how they look. Social media accentuates social groupings, instant gratification, knowing stuff about people that usually would take time, or that wouldn’t even be known.

But there’s also a brilliant summation of the emotional importance of Facetiming a relative who lives far away but stays close to the heart, and the usefulness of knowledge at one’s fingertips.

In the end, David portrays a good equilibrium in her answers. Esther comes to understand the uses and abuses of her phone. There’s loneliness both with her phone and without it; everyone needs to appreciate solitude and understand its difference from loneliness. And Esther has a new-found understanding that self-worth doesn’t just come from other people’s online likes and comments. Offline interactions are just as important, although interestingly can be damaging too, but it’s those ‘real-life’ face-to-face connections with family and friends that build confidence and self-belief and help a person to sustain them. Through real-life human interactions we form resilience and find confidence within ourselves. Taken all together, facial expressions, tactileness, actual physical presence and words spoken can mean much more than a text or a Facetime conversation. It is no coincidence that when writers write their characters, they use the full gamut of senses – they explore the character’s body language, facial expressions, the physical presence in a scene including scents, flavours, touch, sound and words spoken. Esther will come to find that she can choose an outfit without using validation selfies and waiting for likes.

Mainly though, time away from the phone gives Esther space to think and to read a physical book, an appreciation of a calmer, quieter, slower way of living, and the overriding message is that some degree of disconnectivity is healthy.

This is a thoughtful read but also a gripping one – will Esther win her money, and will it have been worth it? You’ll want to disconnect yourself for a while just to find out. Click the button to ‘connect’ you to a bookshop here!

Cloud Boy by Marcia Williams

cloud boyWhat makes a children’s book good? In Edwardian times, critics might have been concerned with the imparting of morality within the text. These moral instructions can still be valid – does a book show the reader how to be socially conscious, perhaps about discrimination, difference or the environment? Or perhaps it’s about psychological improvement – teaching a child about empathy, imagination, making them happy? Helping that child to identify with someone different, or to see themselves mirrored within the story, to validate their identity and their difficulties, to reinforce the self.

But above all, it’s about believable character and good story.

Experienced author Marcia Williams imparts knowledge – this time about some little-known history – in Cloud Boy, and provokes psychological conscientiousness by showing children how to overcome deep adversity, but she has also created a thoroughly authentic main character within an accessible, gripping text.

The book is written in a child’s diary format, which gives the text an absolute simplicity and makes it easy to read. Angie keeps a diary about her life and her friendship with Harry, the boy who lives next door. Together, their fathers have built them a treehouse, which straddles the two children’s gardens, and serves a purpose for them both – a place for Angie to draw and write, and a place for Harry to watch the clouds – he’s an expert in identifying the different formations.

When Angie’s grandmother comes to stay, she shares with the children the letters she wrote as a prisoner of war during Japan’s occupation of Singapore. Drawing on a survivor’s tales of life in the Changi Prison during the Second World War, Williams blends the two stories – the modern children and the tragedy that strikes them, and the history of the Guides in the Changi Prison, and how they sewed quilts to pass the time and create a symbol of hope and endurance.

There is a poignant naivety to Angie’s writing, as she struggles to comprehend how sick Harry is becoming, whilst the reader is all too aware. The stabilising force of her grandmother, who has endured hardships unimaginable to our modern sensibility, enables Angie and Harry to find coping mechanisms to face their own adversity. Like other modern children’s books, the growing awareness of inter-generational relationships and their intense value is well documented here, as grandmothers in literature become more than silver-hair-bunned figures knitting in rocking chairs.

The children’s eagerness to hear their grandmother’s history speaks to the need within us all for a knowledge of our ancestry and identity, but also provides a framework for learning about resilience. All the while, the treehouse represents a place of calm and safety, of independence, as Angie has to learn to deal with her emotions. A treehouse also provides the ability to see things from a different perspective – gazing at the clouds or perhaps on the people below. The careful positioning of it in this novel gives the children a physical structure in which to cement their friendship.

But readers should beware – at times the cruel adversity written about seems much more advanced and harsher than the level implied by the simplicity of the vocabulary and ease of the text. The brevity may suit reluctant readers but there is immense depth in the emotion portrayed – and this is one of Williams’ strengths – she easily portrays Angie’s difficulty in dealing with her strong emotions, and shows incredible pathos in her depiction of Harry’s mother. This is not an easy read in terms of subject matter, but it is worth acknowledging that not all children’s books can be filled with happy endings – not everything does end happily. However, there are glimpses of hope and optimism, and the possibility of how life continues despite the adversity faced.

Williams has woven her own gem here, inspired by an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, and a glimpse of a Changi quilt – a single object of love and endurance. It’s a fascinating piece of social history, and well worth exploring. You can buy a copy here.

When the Stars Come out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright

when the stars come outWhenever there’s a new topic at school, there’s a scramble from teachers and some pupils to find the library books that fit, the book that’s pitched correctly for the age group and touches on all the themes that the teacher wants to explore during that term. And rarely does a book match exactly. Probably because then it would be a textbook, rather than a book for exploring, a book for further stimulus and enquiry. When the Stars Come Out by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by Lucy Cartwright, is a refreshing piece of nonfiction that not only ticks the boxes when exploring ‘Time and Place, Earth and Space’ for example, but it also neatly stretches the mind, and causes pause for thought, and elicits pleasure at the same time.

Not just a space book, as the title might imply, When the Stars Come Out intends to explore our whole universe at night-time from the sciencey bits, such as why night occurs and the different constellations in the sky, but also the geographical element – both physical and human – and it also reaches right from the outer echelons of the universe into our very heads; what happens when we sleep?

Diagrams and illustrations begin the story of how the night works, showing the rotation of the Earth in relation to the sun. Then, before the constellations are explored, there’s some history on stargazing, and some recognition of why some people are scared of the dark. The moon and stars are investigated, and then tangents of this, including auroras, moonbows and shooting stars.

Coming down to earth, Edwards explores different landscapes at night, from the city to the desert, rainforests, mountains and many more including the sea, extrapolating which changes happen at night in the darkness. Animals are looked at in more detail in the next chapter, looking at sleep, dreams, nocturnal animals, and of course, humans. This chapter is particularly interesting as it’s rarely dealt with in children’s non-fiction. I liked the pie chart of sleep cycles, our natural rhythms, and then a look at super sleepers and world records, including the man who stayed awake for 11 days. It’s dangerous of course, as explained in the text, but fascinating information.

Lastly, the book investigates extreme days and nights – near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, as well as clever inventions such as glow in the dark cement and what scientists are working on in terms of night-time and day-time differences in plant growth, for example. The book ends with a glorious celebration of the night – from Diwali to Walpurgisnacht.

This is a joyous and fascinating book. The illustrations are detailed and immersive – both conveying the science in the lunar cycle, but also a sense of wonder and mystery in dreams and night visitors. My only caveat is the size of the text against darkish backgrounds – not good for sleepy eyes – but perhaps the text’s smallness will keep the mind focussed and prevent daydreaming!

The book is large in size but well designed to reflect the information inside. The mountains spread reads as portrait rather than landscape – mirroring mountains of course, but also giving the different levels of mountainous terrain – the birds, the climbers, the foothills. Other pages look like landscapes – the savannah for example, with its panel of night sky at the top, but then it’s land mass stretching towards the reader. The animals are illustrated in action – grazing or in motion, but the text is chunked nicely into individual paragraphs, many in their own colourful panels. The book is extremely visual – the colours subtle rather than garish, reflecting the muted light of night times.

An exciting non-fiction title that illuminates the mysteries of our night-time and stimulates curious minds across a broad spectrum of inter-linking subjects. You can buy it here.

Girl 38: Finding a Friend by Ewa Jozefkowicz

girl 38This is a clever novel. It’s no surprise, coming from an author shortlisted for the Waterstones Book Prize this year for her debut, The Mystery of the Colour Thief. Ewa Jozefkowicz’s new children’s novel, Girl 38, is written with the same lucid fluidity: accessible, readable, and highly immersive.

The book is set out as three distinct strands, but all come together in great storytelling fashion to illuminate the key themes of the book – friendship, courage, intergenerational relationships and the lessons learnt from history, and also, somewhat surprisingly for a novel, the power of visuals.

Twelve-year-old Kat loves to work on her comic-book heroine, Girl 38, who has traits she wishes she could emulate in real life. The comic is set in the future, as Girl 38 space-travels to new places with a calm and measured courage, even in the face of Vilks (humans with wolf-heads, yellow eyes and sharp fangs). But in her real life, Kat faces her own adversities. She feels lonely when her parents work long hours, and her best friend doesn’t always act as such – in fact, before long Kat begins to see that she’s trapped in a toxic friend relationship, and that if she could build up the courage, she might find truer, better friends.

Courage is contagious, and when Kat befriends her neighbour, Ania, an elderly Polish woman with a penchant for painting, Kat begins to hear Ania’s childhood stories, and before long, understands the meaning of true friendship – something she can put into practise in a relationship with the new boy at school, Julius.

What should feel complicated, actually reads simply and with a gentle truthful wisdom. Although we see Kat’s life through her eyes, the small distance and perspective afforded to the reader gives them the ability for objectiveness and readers can root for Kat to do the right thing, and not be consistently led astray by her mean best friend, Gem. There are particularly astute and wise signposts for the reader – Kat’s parents are busy, although not disinterested. They hover, but not like helicopter parents, so although they see the strain in the friendship, they don’t rush to interfere.

But where the reader really gets to think is in the stories of World War II that Ania tells. From jumping from a train, to deciphering which soldiers are friendly and which aren’t, to navigating through a war-torn Europe to save a dear friend who has been taken away to a ‘walled village’, persecuted simply for being different.

There’s a relevance to the book of course, in its attempt to show how empathy can teach us to be kind, how we need to look at history for its lessons. Jozefkowicz brings together the different strands to show the reader about belonging – Girl 38 finding a new planet on which to reside, people in Europe seeking safety, and even in Kat’s modern world – welcoming newcomers who may act and look different, but, of course, are human too.

The characters are painted with depth and understanding. Ania’s cultural heritage is strong in both the objects that surround her and the stories she tells. Kat and her friends are deeply ensconced in our modern world – the phone is used as a plot device – but it is the children’s modern relationships that are so well depicted. The sly toxicity that Gem promotes, whilst still remaining a rounded character with whom we have sympathy, the small differences that make Julius stand out.

But the overarching heart of the book is in the sharing of stories – of Ania’s painful memories of the friend she lost, of her attempting to express her sadness in a creative way, and the compassion and empathy it stirs in her listeners – in how the contemporary reader will see that courage begets courage, that history is so much more than dates and battles, and that comparative thinking – across generations, time periods, and methods of creative endeavour – can teach understanding and awareness.

This is strong and impactful writing packaged in a simple story with mirrored events and clever plot turns. It implores us to use our time thoughtfully. And what better way than to read this novel. You can buy it here.

Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

There are some settings we associate with stories and literature more than others: deep dark forests with shadowy trees and dangerous creatures; choppy seas that tumble boats and threaten lives; castles with tall turrets and dragons soaring overhead; derelict houses with cracked brickwork and hidden dwellers.

And lighthouses. What is it about lighthouses that make them such fascinating fodder for children’s literature? Is it their loneliness, their proximity to the sea and potential danger and mishap, their ability to shine a light into the dark, or perhaps their history? Or all of these.

Sophie Blackall’s wonderfully astute picture book shines a light on all of these facets, but perhaps concentrates most on the history, drawing a picture of a particular fictional keeper of a specific made-up lighthouse.

Choosing a mix of Chinese ink and watercolour, Blackall imbues this picture book with a sense of timelessness as well as a clear sense of history, the mood fluctuating with the passing of time. This is, in essence about change.

Confronted first with illustrations that depict an old-fashioned black and white wedding photograph, a quill pen, a letter to a loved one, a needle and thread, the first pages feel like a log in themselves, a recording of what’s past. Then into the narrative, and Blackall starts with a bird’s eye view of the lighthouse – and an immense, colour-changing, highly patterned sea – looking part like a shoal of fish, part like a net, rendered in turquoises to pink, all surrounding the very stark red and white lighthouse on its small rocky island.

Each spread colours the sea differently – a deep blue with more traditional waves on one, a murkier green in a wind-swept double page, crashing waves with white foamy tops in another. The passing of time, the changing of seasons.

And within some spreads vignettes can be seen – smaller round circular pictures that show the life of our keeper, eating fish for his dinner, writing letters to loved ones, fishing out of the window. These circles are reminiscent of a boat’s portholes, or the face of a clock, or perhaps just the roundness of the rooms of the lighthouse.

But all hold a fascination – through them we see the cross-section of the lighthouse, but also the whole life of the keeper, from supplies being delivered, to a wife being delivered, to the wife herself delivering a baby, and then onto more dramatic scenarios including illness and rescues, until finally news comes that the lighthouse keeper himself is being replaced with a mechanism, and the family leaves for the mainland coast.

This most wonderful picture book tells both of the mundanity of the keeper’s life – the slow pace of the day, the importance of routine, the marking of time, but also the large changes around him too – the changes in weather from fog and storms to beautiful sunsets, the big changes that mark a life – weddings, births, and of course the leaps in mankind as science takes over.

The book is physically long and tall like a lighthouse, with red endpapers like the colour of a lighthouse top, and the illustrations as meticulous as the careful logbook of the keeper.

Cleverly, the text too matches the rhythm of the waves, the solitariness of the job. There is simplicity in the list of tasks, but also a poetry in the sound of the wind, the clanging of the bell for fog, the majesty of the wide sea.

A section at the end gives much more historical fact and detail, and explores the author’s inspiration. This is a mesmerising lyrical view of a lighthouse, and lighthouse life, which shines a beam of light into the children’s picture book section. Don’t crash on the rocks – find your lighthouse book here.

Unstoppable by Dan Freedman

unstoppableI sometimes look at the lives of the children around me and marvel how they fit so much into each week. Whether it’s keeping up with friends, schoolwork, celebrity gossip, world news, or the myriad of hobbies, sports and activities they all seem to undertake. As well as copious hours on Insta of course (and reading!).

But it’s not just physical time and energy these activities consume, it’s also copious amounts of mental space. And with this busyness comes pressure.

Dan Freedman (author of the Jamie Johnson football novels) has tapped into this busyness, and also into the zeitgeist, by writing a pertinent YA novel for our times about pressure on teens, and linked to this, about the causes and motivations behind the rise in knife crime. Combining his knowledge of sports, and real-time information gathered from conversations with children during his school visits, Freedman has penned a gripping novel about how life for these children can seem unstoppable, how pressures build up and can lead to the difficult choices that may set them on the right or wrong path in life.

Covering a range of hugely contemporary issues, from alcoholism, first love, knife crime, gang warfare, poverty, parental and school pressure and the meaning of sports, Freedman keeps his novel fresh and spikey.

Fourteen-year-old twins, Roxy and Kaine, used to be close. But recently, their pathways have diverged – both are excellent sports players, Roxy training to be a tennis champion, Kaine good enough at football to be scouted for the Premier League.

But the path to success isn’t easy. As well as the hard work that needs to be put in, the teenagers face a daunting series of barriers – from their father’s joblessness and alcoholism, parental pressure to succeed, poverty, and, seeing as they live in London, the ongoing gang recruitment on their doorstep. It’s only a matter of time before knives are involved.

Highly readable, and with as much pace as a professional tennis serve, Freedman’s prose is in the ilk of genre writing – concise and tight, going for the simplest words but still managing to convey a depth to both setting and character. The writing is particularly astute on the sports field, and it is here that Freedman excels, making the reader believe that they are learning about two future sports stars.

There’s also the continuing issue of the teens’ mental health. Written in third person, but alternating between the points of view of Roxy and Kaine, this is a close up view of the pressure both children are under, but in different ways. What the book does, very cleverly, is point to the issues that are occupying today’s children and try to disseminate them within the narrative arc.

Supplementing the main prose are diary entries, flashbacks, old-fashioned notes!, and also text messages – with plot points turning on photos that come up on people’s social media feed. It might sound overwhelming to the reader, but is actually straightforwardly packaged, so that the reader is empathetic to Roxy and Kaine, (despite their differences), without feeling the pressure him/herself.

It’s interesting that there is equal emphasis on the internal and external for the twins. Their own determination and grit to succeed, their interior struggle with mental wellbeing, but also the sphere of their family and its wellbeing, and finally the exterior of peers and the dangers of the community in which they live.

A tribute to Freedman must go to his understanding that it is through individual acts of kindness (one person seeing employment potential in Roxy and Kaine’s Dad), and trusted adults (a teacher consistently rooting for Kaine; the memory of an unfaltering grandparent relationship) that the youngsters come good.

Despite the many issues, this is in essence about sibling rivalry and sport, and the story zings through the teens’ potential to their ultimate triumph, despite the hurdles in their way. For a rattling good read, and a dissection of how we live today, even unbookish sporty readers will be tuning in. And with an equal balance in having both gender protagonists, the book looks set to be Unstoppable. You can buy it here. 

The Year I Didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen

the year i didnt eatI have a distinct memory of reading The Best Little Girl in the World by Steven Levenkron in middle school. It had an arresting cover of a painfully thin girl studying herself in a mirror, the colour washed out, almost all faded to grey. It was an influential work at the time, (published in 1978), being one of the few novels for children that addressed eating disorders. Historical perspective shows that the narrative was more about the psychologist’s view of anorexia, and the narrative bends rather too far towards the male psychologist as saviour of the little girl. It very much speaks to the 1970’s perspective of eating disorders.

In some ways, we have come a long way to understanding eating disorders since that 1970’s viewpoint, although not far enough, and with the growth of science comes the growth of technology, and social media has been shown (for some) to heighten the damage in this area.

Into this torrid landscape steps the refreshing and very modern The Year I didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen. Part of publisher’s Zuntold new ‘Fiction as Therapy’ resource, this is a powerful, devastating, yet quietly hopeful novel written by someone who has drawn on his own experiences to tell his fictional narrative, and it very much doesn’t speak to the scourge of social media as being at fault. This book comes from a very different place.

Fourteen-year-old Max writes a diary to Ana, short for anorexia, his eating disorder. Privy to these epistles, as well as to the main first-person narrative recording a year in his life, the reader comes to understand the complicated and irrational emotions behind Max’s mental illness. Some days are okay and normal. Readers discover Max’s brilliant relationship with his older brother, Robin, and how Robin introduces him to geocaching, which turns out to be a factor in Max’s recovery; the reader also discovers Max’s friends, and new girl Evie, and see the very authentic everyday situations that arise at school, be it at lunchtime or during lessons, and there’s also, of course, Max’s parents, brilliantly portrayed and heartrendingly pictured from afar – only seen from Max’s point of view, we feel the quiet despair they must feel, but never get too close. This is clever writing.

Then there are the bad days. Pollen writes with excruciating detail and raw emotion about the complexity of anorexia – how it draws the sufferer away from those wonderful friend and family relationships, how it tricks the mind and yet also concentrates it. He explains misunderstood conceptions, without preaching – because this is all through Max’s eyes. He dissects the portrayal of anorexia in the media and online, the fallacy that food is off-putting to anorexics when really it is enticing and causes revulsion at the same time – even anorexics have their favourite foods.

In no way condescending, but written with a natural flair for easy prose, this is a compelling and genuinely fascinating story. Fed throughout with injections of humour – Max is a likeable and funny character – this is a really great YA novel, in the end uplifting and hopeful.

For those who worry that reading about teens with anorexia leads to teens having anorexia, I quite simply explain that in the same way that reading Horrid Henry doesn’t make young children horrid, reading about a mental illness doesn’t make one aspire to be ill. In fact, what the book gives the reader is empathy – in large doses. Whereas travel books might be aspirational, this is firmly off-putting in its portrayal of what anorexia does to body, mind and relationships.  Where it does show hope, is in facing down anorexia, confiding in others, sharing the pain and learning to recover. It’s not an easy journey – Max is a character the reader wills to good health, knowing all the time that he may not make it – and it’s a rewarding novel. And one that makes you thankful for every nourishing bite. You can buy it here.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

ghostThe other day, I was having a conversation with a mixed cohort at our library lunch club. We were discussing sports books, you’ll know the type – those formulaic novels or reading scheme books about a team who overcome an obstacle to triumph by winning the cup or moving up a league. Whether they focus on a less talented player come good, or a star player overcoming his loss of confidence, or an injury-stricken player making it in the end, they do tend to be of a type. There’s a comfort in that – repetition and formulas are a comforting part of re-reading and fixing narrative arcs in the mind, as well as reinforcing good messages about teamwork and attitude.

But it is hugely refreshing when a book that’s ostensibly about ‘sport’ actually stands out from the crowd. On TV, Friday Night Lights did this spectacularly well. Compulsive, gripping and hugely sympatico. Now, Ghost does this for children in book format.

Ghost was published in the US in 2016 to huge acclaim, spending more than 21 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and finally makes its debut appearance here thanks to new publishers on the block, Knights Of.

Running is what Castle (Ghost) is good at. But he isn’t part of a squad or team; he doesn’t see it as a sport. The first time he had to run, it was away from his gun-wielding father. When he inadvertently ends up at an athletics team training session and beats the fastest kid there by running against him on the outside of the track, the coach sees his potential.

But Ghost’s raw energy needs to be harnessed and disciplined in order for him to succeed at life, let alone as part of a running team. And that’s not all that easy.

There are lots of themes running through this book that elevate it to much more than a sports novel. And most encouragingly, it doesn’t follow the formula in plot detail either. There is no grand competition at which Ghost must triumph, no injury to overcome. The focus is very much on Ghost himself, of committing to the training, of learning to get along with the rest of the team (they’re still a way off complete bonding). This is about personal development and circumstances, but all written in such a way that it will appeal to reluctant readers as well as proficient book-devourers.

The main strand here is the father/son dynamic and relationship that springs up between Ghost and Coach, as well as the parallel of Ghost’s troubled and complicated relationship with his absent father. There’s also the class divide Ghost sees around him – where people live, how they dress and the privileges afforded to them; his own single mother working hard, a school system struggling to work with all its pupils.

But perhaps the most endearing quality in this book is the fully rounded, witty, flawed, tempestuous and yet kind protagonist. Written in first person, and immediately identifiable, Ghost first introduces himself to the reader by explaining about his fascination with record-breaking facts, including the man who blows up balloons with his nose. Ghost is believable and fun, with unique traits – spitting sunflower seeds, watching from the bus stop as people bob up and down on the treadmills inside the gym opposite. He notices stuff, he has a great sense of himself, and a great sense of humour.

Of course Reynolds tracks Ghost’s development over the novel, using the model of race training and a no-nonsense coach to turn our hero into a somewhat hero (in the reader’s eyes maybe), delineating his flaws and exploring how the adults around him help him to overcome the obstacles he meets along the way. So there’s that trope of coach as mentor to troubled kid, but by using first person from Ghost’s point of view, Reynolds goes deep inside Ghost’s head – the vehement wish to own proper running shoes and where that takes him, the anger that bubbles inside, his outlet in running, and his need to be guided.

All narrated with easy prose, at times in Ghost’s youthful, naïve and vulnerable outlook, at others with a childlike profundity that bursts through from nowhere, but always spilling over with energy and zest.

Surrounded by a fully-realised team of secondary characters, both in his team track-mates, but also in the local shopkeeper and his long-suffering mother, this is an outstanding story about self-belief and hope. First in a series, you can buy it here.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

on the come upIt’s hard producing a second piece of art when the first one has been so universally successful. People often talk of second book or second album pain. And after The Hate U Give, it’s no surprise that there was hype around Thomas’s second novel.

I try very hard to ignore hype – if possible I’d read every book without seeing the author’s name first, so that each one comes afresh rather than through Twitter or a publicist, but I live in the real world so obviously that’s not possible. Instead, I quite often try to see patterns in what I’m reading – how books sit together, how trends bear out, how what was written a few years ago and published today reflects on our society.

When I read On the Come Up, I was also reading The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (a book for adults), and I was pleasantly cheered to find parallels in the reading. Winton’s book is about a boy coming-of-age in the Australian outback, running away, and written in first person slang dialect. Thomas’s book is a coming-of-age by an up-and-coming rap artist set in the same fictional Garden Heights neighbourhood as Thomas’s first novel, The Hate U Give. The two books, Winton’s and Thomas’, are distinctively different and physically half a world away from each other, but both tell the story of invisible disadvantaged young people clamouring to be heard.

Bri lives with her mother, Jay, a recovering drug addict, and her older brother, and dreams of being a famous rapper like her father, long since shot dead in gang violence. Once again, Thomas revisits the injustices of growing up African American in the States, but the tone here pushes further than THUG, both in Bri’s first person voice and in plot. There’s much here to admire in Thomas’s characters and themes, but it’s the message behind the story that reaches furthest.

The book is firmly rooted in its background and neighbourhood – Bri and her family have to visit a food bank at Christmas after her mother is laid off (a result of riots in the neighbourhood causing lack of funds at her workplace), Bri attends a school where she’s frisked on the way in, her mother’s first thought on hearing a school emergency is that it’s a shooting, and Bri takes to colouring in her sneakers so that it’s not apparent that they aren’t the real deal. These are themes of poverty, violence and peer pressure that are universal in appeal – they apply equally to inner-city London kids as they do to black Americans, but there’s a sharp undercurrent of exploration of race that is most interesting to read and absorb.

One of the key strands is how Bri is seen by the world as opposed to who she is. An age-old trope in literature of appearance and reality, which becomes sharpened in Thomas’s insightful writing. Bri is labelled very much as the angry black woman (cf the Serena Williams trope) – when she pushes back against injustice she becomes labelled as aggressive, hoodlum, ghetto. Bri has the choice to own that label and act up to it – forging her career as a rapper by climbing into the label and delivering lyrics about guns, drugs and violence, playing to it and being the scary edgy black artist whose songs are downloaded for that reason, or whether she disowns the label and makes it by being who she really is inside, a more nuanced person than a mere label or type.

And by concentrating on Bri’s lyrics as a way for her to define herself, Thomas highlights the power of words. I’ve long argued that lyrics are yet another form of poetry – awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan may have been controversial, but shows I’m not alone in this thought – and Thomas goes the full way in equating the two – “Since hip-hop is poetry, your grades should never drop again.” Bri’s teacher lays on her.

Whether you go with this or not, it’s the power of language and words that sings through the page. From the slang Thomas uses (which again reminded me of Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut with its own very different but Australian words), to the cultural references, this is a book firmly rooted in its background that shows how powerful words can be – and how they can be twisted. Bri’s lyrics are listened to, used, and manipulated in ways she couldn’t have dreamed of when she composed them, but then she’s shown how words can be used for good too. This is about young people speaking out, about using their voices as a force for good, about unconventional poetry and the wonders it can work for freedom of the soul. It’s about labels and when we attribute them and how to lose them.

And above all, this is another reading eye-opener from Angie Thomas. There’s a touchingly instrumental sibling relationship, an interrogation of friendship and loyalty, and what lustful feelings can do to friendships and the bond of family.

This is an edgier read than THUG, it takes a harder line, and maybe for that reason it’s harder to fall in love with than THUG. But On the Come Up pulsates with passionate social commentary and poetry, and maybe Thomas feels that if the message isn’t totally getting through the first time, you have to shout a little louder the second. In a week in which children around the world are using their voices to push across a message, (YouthStrikeforClimate), this seems like apt reading material for them. Age 13+. You can buy it here.