Book of the Week

A Chase in Time by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Brett Helquist

a chase in timeSally Nicholls, one of our most assured writers for children, has turned her attention to a new series of time-slip adventures for slightly younger readers (confident 7+ years), and the first novel, A Chase in Time, is a delight from start to finish.

Written in an accessible, abundantly clear and precise style, Nicholls wastes no time in diving straight into her plot, but also writes with one eye firmly on modernity, despite the bulk of the book being set in 1912.

Alex and his sister spend every summer at their aunt’s country house, which also doubles as a bed and breakfast. This summer is to be the last; Aunt Joanna is selling the house because money is short, and things are set to be different in more ways than one. Because this summer, when Alex looks in the golden-framed mirror that hangs in the hallway, he sees another boy in the mirror – and it’s not his reflection. Before long, Alex and his sister Ruby are sucked through the mirror back in time, to the same house in 1912. And the people who inhabit it desperately need their help.

Nicholls’ characters always tend to be strong-willed and confident, and Alex is no different. His voice rings wonderfully true, and he feels authentic and real because of his steadfastness and his quality of being incredibly grounded:

“Alex had never believed in those children in books who discovered secret passageways, or Magic Faraway Trees, or aliens at the bottom of the garden, and kept them a secret…What was the fun of a secret passage if you had no one to boast about it to?”

He and his sister constantly refer to their knowledge of time travel – garnered from books and movies; they are immediately self-aware that they are in this predicament to solve a problem, and once it’s been solved they’ll return to their proper time in history.

In fact, Nicholls is clever here. Not only do we really feel Alex’s character through his authentic voice, but she describes time travel with fresh eyes, all the while referencing those that have gone before her in the literary children’s canon. Once Alex realises where he is, he has expectations about the past – that perhaps the rooms would all look rather like a period piece from TV or The National Trust – but he finds that they are more real, more lived-in. He also describes the rooms and people matter-of-factly, but by pointing out the differences with modern day rather than just having a bland description. And when the children arrive back in their own time, reality dawns about what has happened to the people they met in 1912. This is all brilliantly executed by Nicholls and feels like a new way of dealing with time-slip historical fiction. It’s honest and interesting.

The adults whom Alex and Ruby meet are wonderfully eccentric, and the children they meet are as matter-of-fact as them – refusing to be impressed by the modern mobile phone, which of course isn’t that exciting without a signal in 1912. Equally, Ruby and Alex are impressed with some of the childhood freedoms of their 1912 hosts – the freedom to carry matches, for example.

The host of influences behind Nicholls floats in the background of her novel like benevolent shadows – Blyton and Streatfield in particular – with the plot zinging from a fire in the stables to a dangerous car chase (in a very old-fashioned car, wonderfully described with the fresh eyes of Alex), and some criminal catching.

Illustrated by Brett Helquist, best known for his work on A Series of Unfortunate Events, the text is punctuated with roman numerals clocks, ships in bottles, other artefacts, and pencil drawings of the characters – child readers will note the mobile phone held by Ruby and taken with her through the mirror, which she clasps even whilst dressed in Edwardian clothes. The illustrations help to break up the text, which is in rather large typeface: these elements all combining to make this a sumptuous, satisfying and accessible read.

All in all, it’s a modern classic of a book and my top choice for the summer because, in a most intelligent, perceptive and empathetic way, it portrays people who are generally accepting and kind. What a great introduction to reading for pleasure for new young readers. Published 2nd August, you can buy it here.

Death by Detention by Ali Sparkes

death by detentionThe other week in my school library, I was assigned a year 6 pupil for a day whom I never normally see. He’s not that into books or reading and shies away from the library space unless his friends are hanging there on hot days when it’s the coolest room in the school. So when he was assigned to me, there was a fair amount of reluctance. And yet, by the end of the day, there was a glint of enthusiasm there, a realisation that books aren’t bad. He read to younger students, held a book treasure hunt, and even agreed he’d come back (and not just for the chocolates!) It’s all about changing someone’s mindset.

Prolific children’s author Ali Sparkes is attempting to do the same thing with her latest novel, Death by Detention. It’s aimed at slightly older children than her usual books, aimed at the young teen reluctant readers, and although I don’t quite fit that mould, I’m captivated by a great story well told, and this fits that bill too.

The protagonists aren’t bookish or scholarly; they aren’t misunderstood geniuses but regular, can’t be arsed, worldly teens. Their attention spans are fairly narrow and they’re just the type of troubled teens who sit in detention planning their next game of Fortnite rather than concentrating on the homework in front of them, and they definitely don’t read books.

This book begins with these two teens, Elliot and Shania, in detention. And the book doesn’t hesitate – before the end of the first chapter, Elliot and Shania witness their head teacher shot from an unknown marksman outside the window, and then watch in horror as a laser beam seeks out further targets. They have to use their wits to make their way out of their deserted school before the gunman or men, realise they are there. What’s more, their head teacher looks as if he might be coming back…as a zombie.

For this generation of teens, there will be inevitable comparisons with Alex Rider type novels, but Elliot and Shania have to rely on their quick-wittedness and resourcefulness rather than some James Bond type gadgets in order to survive. And this is where Sparkes (and the reader) have a lot of fun with the novel. By using the precise orientation of the school as the setting for the entire novel, Sparkes is able to explore all the fun hidden spaces within its site – stationery cupboards of course, but also the high windows of a school gym, the maintenance crawl space above the toilet ceilings, the tannoy from the head teacher’s office, reception, and of course the gym cupboard. And as everyone who has read a high school drama knows – there’s plenty of scope to be had in the school theatre space. This meshes nicely with computer games – each action sequence is in a different setting.

Sparkes also captures the extreme physicality of the teens’ situation – they are not just running away or confronting the gunmen, but they feel their cramped limbs from hiding, they vomit in fear and relief, their hearts palpitate and they go into cold shock.

What’s more, as the reader roots for them to succeed, Sparkes alternates between the two protagonists’ point of view – their headspace – seeing not only what’s in front of them, but also thoughts about who they are, how they came to be in this situation, and the resilience and skills they might draw upon to see them through. It’s the clever writer’s way of drip feeding information about the main characters and Sparkes works her magic here, as well as proving her knack of showing character through action – there is no lengthy exposition.

The beauty of the book is that it reads like a computer game – it’s fast, pacey, gripping, and yet in prosaic format – Sparkes has time to give us apt similes – “Normally she attracted cops like a dropped Cornetto attracts ants.” The chapters are super short, ending in gritty cliff-hangers, much like levels in computer games. Her descriptions don’t interfere with the action, but merely enhance it – there is a multitude of sensations giving the text a visceral feel. The reader sees what’s dark and light, where the shadows creep, the sounds of silence and of approach and of violence.

And this perhaps is where readers or gatekeepers may feel a jolt. Sparkes reportedly failed to attract a mainstream publisher for the title – there are so many fears about showing a gunman in schools in a novel for children after the number of real school shootings in the States.

But I would argue that if publishers shy away from novels that may offend, then much of publishing would fall away, and be worse for it. In the same way that computer games don’t shy away from it, in the same way that dystopian novels portray children battling to death, or incidents of terrorism, then this shouldn’t be out of bounds here – particularly when in actuality this story is positioned very far away from what we think of as ‘school shooting’ or ‘act of terrorism’.

In fact, there’s much humour. There are numerous wry asides – the headteacher is positively brilliant at releasing humour into scary situations and is as sharp as a pencil, and the teens fare well in this regard too.

This is a fabulous entry or re-entry into books for reluctant readers. Short, sharp, witty and great fun, the reader will understand that it’s not great to judge someone by the stereotype attributed to them, in the same way that they’ll understand that facing a gunman with a resistance band and a cricket ball from the gym cupboard probably isn’t the best solution.

This up-to-the-minute pacey novel is a match for the screen any day. I’ll take detention – if they’ll let me read stories like this during it. Suitable for 11+ years. You can buy yours here.

Payback by M A Griffin

paybackWith an edgy cover that illuminates shadows of teens wearing fox masks against a stark black background, where the title winks at the reader in foiled gold lettering, Payback draws attention before the reader has even opened the book. Inside, lies a dark, gritty political thriller.

Protagonist 16-year-old Tom has long been a fan of direct action group, Payback – a modern Robin Hood heist outfit who take from the rich and give to the poor, often filming their crimes and screening them on YouTube. When they target the hotel where he works, it’s not long before he’s recruited to the cause and the group, and using his acting skills to assist in their next ventures.

In typical heist movie style, the reader is on board with the perpetrators of the crime, at first seeing what they do as necessary to combat corporate and government wrongs. The so-called victims of the crimes are not victims at all but evil money-grabbers, and the direct action group Payback doesn’t keep the money, but simply redistributes wealth – handing it off to the neediest in society.

But the beauty of the book, which reads as a thriller, gaining momentum job after job like a train rushing through stations with the brakes off, is that it makes the reader re-evaluate the protagonist’s motives, and the moral stature of the group.

Tom comes from a privileged background – something of which is he quite self-aware. And it troubles him at the same time as providing him with a cushy safety net. And Payback’s crimes are not without their innocent victims – even the ones not at the scene, such as the waiter they trick out of having a job, simply by taking his place as a disguise. As the violence ramps up, the reader becomes even more doubtful of the lines of right and wrong.

In the middle, there’s some head scratching for the reader – was Robin Hood right – is stealing from the rich to give to the poor the right thing to do – and how do you work out who should be a beneficiary and who shouldn’t? And are all the privileged evil? There’s some pretty facile arguing from some of the gang, juxtaposing benefit withdrawal with champagne expenses in the House of Lords. All this talk about the balance of wealth in society makes the book current, but what Griffin does magnificently is that he doesn’t present the story as a didactic piece – just as a kind of ‘throwing it out there, think about this’ conversation.

The teenagers read as pretty authentic, with the odd swear word grafted in, and the dialogue pretty spot-on – tidied of course for a prose novel – but they also come across as pretty insular and spectacularly naïve. In fact, at times every move seems more like a game to them – even a computer game – than real life. So when they set some of their money on fire, or badly misread a trap – it’s kind of inevitable that things will start to go badly for them, and that the smart policewoman who’s hot on their heels will piece it all together before they will.

By and by, the reader learns that much of the gang’s motivation isn’t necessarily altruistic.

However, Griffin ramps up the tension so that by the time the policewoman comes across Payback’s headquarters, the reader is in as much of a hurry to find out what happens as Tom and Payback are to get away. The second half of the book is a rip-roaring read, particularly difficult to put down.

The idea of a direct action group making changes in society rather than the people being reliant on the government to effect change is perhaps even more current than the idea of a Robin Hood figure (although Griffin purportedly took some inspiration from Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, a modern Spanish politician famous for his Robin Hood raids). The novel is highly political because it speaks directly to teenagers about how and when they could effect change themselves – and at what point a moral or legal line is crossed.

With a wonderful evocation of a slightly different Manchester, in which teens lurk in spaces under arches and access free climbing walls, and terrific scenes in the dark ‘wild nothingness’ of the countryside, Griffin nails his settings with aplomb. It’s a highly visual novel with teasing chapter endings, moral dilemmas and questions about consequences, trust and justice. But most of all, it’s a thriller of a ride. Invest in this one, and you’ll have swift payback in satisfaction. You can buy it here.

Joy by Corrinne Averiss, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

joy
What makes us happy? Is it our genetic makeup, our life circumstances, our achievements? We constantly strive to be happy, but happiness can really only be a fleeting sensation, for without experiencing some low points in between, we wouldn’t know what happiness is.

The little girl called Fern in the picture book Joy also strives to find what happiness is, and to catch it. She is a lively active girl, with a hearteningly good relationship with her grandmother, who bakes butterfly cakes, and smiles. But one day, her grandmother – Nanna – seems down. The colour has ebbed from her page, her paintings hang skewwhiff, there are cobwebs on the mantelpiece, and a wheelchair where once there were cakes.

Fern asks her mother, who tells her that the joy has gone out of Nanna’s life, and so Fern endeavours to capture some to take to her. This brings on a beautiful few pages that try to capture where Fern finds joy – getting the giggles, or dancing with her father. In the end, the feeling is summed up with a ‘whooosh’.

Unfortunately, Fern can’t package this whooosh of joy for her Nanna – it won’t fit in her cardboard box, or stay in her butterfly net. And yet, when she goes to Nanna and spends time telling her about her joyful exploits, the joy comes back into the room in a phantasmagoria of colours. And once more there are butterfly cakes.

The illustrations are both fresh and traditional. Nanna is pictured as a stereotypical older woman – white hair in a bun, glasses on a string, and in an old-fashioned armchair. And yet the butterflies rise from a cake in a stunningly fresh kaleidoscope cascade. Fern plays with old-fashioned toys, and yet the people in the park are a diverse mix – some seem from today, others even from Edwardian times. Perhaps because ultimate happiness doesn’t change over time.

In fact there are numerous devices here to bring happiness to the reader. The contentment on Fern’s face, the use of the word ‘whooosh!’ to express how Fern feels about happiness or joy, the beautiful colour wheels used to express the bounce of a puppy, the chuckle of a baby, and the repetition of the happy words.

Follath’s exploration of colour, using mainly ink, pencils and watercolour is exceptionally stunning here, quite literally bringing joy to the reader. The careful delineation of the park and all its various elements, the exquisite ability to capture innocent expression in Fern’s face as she gathers her catching materials, and of course the abstract spreading of colourful ‘joy’ throughout.

Some negative comments on the book have pointed to how easily it offers a way out of Nanna’s depression, and doesn’t give the illness the gravitas it deserves. I’d disagree. Moments of sadness don’t always equate to depression. In fact Nanna is shown with all the colour seeped from her world, but so is Fern too at one point – when she finds she can’t capture joy in a bag. She isn’t suffering from depression – it’s a momentary sadness, just as happiness and joy can be momentary too. Nanna’s does seem prolonged, and some readers have suggested, more serious – but there’s little harm in showing young readers that there are good days to be found even with periods of persistent sadness.

There is no reason given for Nanna’s sadness, although I speculate it’s more about ageing than it is about depression, but the essence of the book is not to explore this. It’s to explore happiness – and that it’s not equated with ‘taking’ behaviour, in terms of what we have or possess. Joy isn’t in our possessions in the same way that it isn’t something that can be physically possessed. Instead, happiness is about ‘giving’ behaviour – about giving of ourselves to others, and by that making them and us feel good. Fern’s time with Nanna gives the greatest joy to them both.

And within the book it’s this inter-generational behaviour that stands out for me. The book shows what joy it can be for different generations to connect and develop an ongoing interdependent relationship. And how emotion is transient. You can buy it here.

if all the world wereAnother book that deserves a mention and seeks to explore this relationship is If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys. This picturebook is about exploring the death of a grandparent, but deals with it sensitively. What it does have in common with Joy is to explore the quality of the time that the grandfather and his granddaughter spend together -through the different seasons and engaged in different activities. And they have created a vast bank of memories for the girl to hold onto.

Coelho is a poet and it shows in the lyrical text, which is both touching and filled with analogies and metaphor. There are also hints of cultural inheritance, as the grandfather imparts his own childhood stories to his granddaughter. Of course the book is laden with loss, but the intimacy and warmth of the colourful illustrations lessen the load, and what remains is the inherent tenderness of this intergenerational relationship. You can buy it here.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

a sky painted goldThere’s always that one book you read over a lazy summer, (maybe whilst swaying in a sun-dappled hammock or sitting at the edge of a swimming pool with legs dangling in the cool water), which is like a drop of sunlight itself, with its long languorous descriptions of hot lazy days and summer evening outdoor parties.

The Great Gatsby is that novel for me. Although I take great pleasure in re-reading it at any time of year, (I view it as the quintessential novel and marvel at its perfect opening and closing, its narrative arc, its unreliable narrator), it always conjures a feeling of sticky heat, of lavish summer nights and heated tension.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood is another summer novel, and although it’s certainly been smudged with more than a hint of a Gatsby brush, and has more than a touch of I Capture the Castle to it, its narrator seems to be pretty much reliable.

Lou Trevelyan lives in Cornwall with her large family and dreams of being a writer. In search of solitude, she steals away to the large empty Cardew house on an island across the causeway, but when the owners arrive for the summer, her place of abandon is turned into an opulent party house. After gate-crashing one of their Gatsby-esque parties one night, Lou receives an official invitation to the house, and before long she’s swept into the Cardews’ decadent world and captured by their attractive carelessness.

In the same way that Lou is seduced by the brother and sister who own the house, despite them being, at times, careless with other people, so the reader is seduced too by the lush descriptions of parties on summer nights and beautiful people living luxurious lives. There is nothing new about this coming-of-age romance, but it sumptuously immerses the reader in the 1920’s era, with great period detail recounting the hairstyles, art deco, dresses and jazz music of the time as the wild youngsters experience the post-war age.

Wood carefully explores Lou’s transformation into adulthood; the conflict with her country bumpkin older sister, the astute knowingness of her parents that each of their children will grow to have different lives, Lou’s own excitement at seeing London, and her growing sense of freedom and independence counteracted with her wariness of the wider world, the temptations of the time and the wilder morals of the people she encounters.

The mood of change as the world takes breath after the First World War is well captured by Wood; her youth are more daring, embracing different styles of music and dance, and displaying the restlessness and grasping for fun so indicative of the wealthy youth of that time. Wood documents their proclivity for drinking and extravagance, and notes the growing freedoms of women and the emergence of black culture – and in doing so she shows how she has plucked her enigmatic Cardews from that famous ‘lost generation’, as well as expressing her insight into our own times with her glance at that period of history almost a hundred years ago.

And yet, this is a dreamy YA read rather than a satirical criticism of the time. The Cardews may be careless with their money, but they are not as careless as Fitzgerald’s characters: here the Cardews win the readers’ love and sympathy, and pose as victims and heroes in a mesmeric summertime escapist novel. With their increased leisure time, these protagonists have the wherewithal to devote time to sketching and writing, climbing trees and observing. And so the book matches perfectly a reader’s desire for their own pleasurable leisurely summertime read. For ages 12+ years. Publishes 5 July. You can pre-order it here.

Candy by Lavie Tidhar

candySometimes when you have a lot of something, it can begin to feel a bit samey. I read lots of children’s books, and there are moments when themes that are topical or zeitgeisty occur a little too often and the topic begins to feel a bit staid. It’s probably like eating a lot of chocolate. If it’s readily available and you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it can taste a bit mundane. But if you live under a strict regime in which chocolate is more or less forbidden, just one taste can be electrifying.

When I opened Candy and started reading it, it was like eating chocolate again after a 12 week hiatus; it was a breath of sweet fresh air.

The press release announces that this book is Bugsy Malone crossed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I like to think it’s a conversation between Raymond Chandler and Willy Wonka. Or Jessica Rabbit set in Cadbury World. Lavie Tidhar has written a detective story in film noir style based around the prohibition of candy. And it’s superb.

Nellie Faulkner is a child detective, living in a city in which sweets have been forbidden under the new mayor and his Prohibition Act. Roaming the unsweetened mean streets are gangs of candy bootleggers, all smuggling in sweet treats, eating their booty and making money. When gangster Eddie de Menthe’s teddy bear goes missing, Nellie has a case to solve. But when the teddy shows up and Eddie himself disappears, things turn serious.

Tidhar has gone in guns blazing on both film noir style and candy mode in the novel. Every description compares the world to candy in some way, so that the clouds are either candy floss or meringues and people are compared to sweets:

“She was the sort of person to hold on to a grudge like chewing gum stuck to a shoe.”

“He looked as trustworthy as an ice-cream seller in winter.”

But what makes the book zing is Tidhar’s talent in sustaining his Chandler-esque child-friendly film noir style throughout. Think Goodfellas, think The Godfather. For kids. There’s the bootlegger boss who throws a tantrum in his mansion:

“’Can we get some cake, boss?’ Gordon said. His friend nudged him in the ribs nervously. Waffles’s hand came crashing down on the folding table before him, sending plate and spoon and crumbs flying in all directions.
‘Nobody gets cake!’ he screamed. His face was red, his eyes bulging’”

There’s a mean girl gang led by Sweetcakes, a black car that slides in and out of view that Nellie may or may not see, and scene setting straight out of the film noir genre in which electric fans move hot air slowly round a room, for example. Tidhar’s ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek means that the style is both consistent and hilarious:

“In the morning, the sun shone through the window and the new day smelled of cut grass and fried eggs. The cut grass was outside. The eggs were in the kitchen, and they were for me.”

The book is funny, but also zings along with a great cast of characters and an excellent plot. Of course, with any book about sweets there are bound to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory allusions and there is great fun to be had spotting them, and even more fun as the adult reader spots the film noir allusions too.

But in the end, despite all this fun, this is a children’s book with heart. The book explores doing the right thing, and overcoming bullies, and is engaging, warm and topical. A mayor whose slogan is ‘Eat Your Greens’ with supporters throwing celery sticks in the air, is of our times.

The publisher has employed Mark Beech to supply illustrations throughout, and happily they are quirky, and slightly zany, beautifully matching the text style.

Candy may be Tidhar’s first novel for children, but it’s easy to tell it comes from an accomplished award-winning author (for his adult titles). Let’s hope there’s more to come for children – they’ll crave it more than chocolate (well….maybe). If you’re an adult, and want a sample of Tidhar’s bizarre film noir mind, go read his Winnie the Pooh thread on his twitter timeline. You’ll never see 100 Acre Wood the same way again.

And buy your own copy of Candy here – it’s a golden ticket of children’s books.

Little Guide to Great Lives: Marie Curie by Isabel Thomas, illustrations by Anke Weckmann

marie curie
There’s been a glut of biographies of women recently, not only to fill the gap in the market, but also to celebrate the centenary of the first women getting the vote in the UK. But this new series, Little Guides to Great Lives, also features men, and isn’t skewed towards the women’s suffrage movement. Rather than a bound anthology of biographies, each of these biographies is a small standalone book, although they are exquisitely designed and so do look good together on the shelf.little guides to great lives

Other than their size and design, what makes these biographies stand out is the ease with which the stories are told, the fascinating details included, and the chatty tone of the prose. Including quotations from the famous people themselves, and questions about why their lives matter and what made them who they were, these are intriguing little books.

The book about Marie Curie starts with her childhood – including references to her siblings, her friendships and even her likes and dislikes. Cartoonish illustrations complete with speech bubbles give pause for thought, empathy and understanding; a child reader might quickly relate to a wild child who loved lemonade and ice cream.

With the world outside encroaching on her life, and a lack of money and lack of opportunity as a girl, boredom and frustration eventually turn to studiousness and adventure when Marie makes her way to France and the Sorbonne. Marie’s own scientific studies take off, and here the book really excels: explaining very clearly to the reader the science she was testing, the notes she made, the importance and relevance of her discoveries and the ongoing impact she has on science and our world.

Each book in the series deals with their subject in this way – starting with childhood but not just the dry facts. The books drill down into the person’s emotional stability, the benefits they experienced or the deprivations they suffered. Successes and failures are highlighted, as well as the impact of the outer world and when they had to overcome something difficult or sad and persevere. With only 64 pages in which to accomplish the extraordinary tale of Marie Curie, Thomas keeps the prose succinct and neat, but with small dashes of personality so that it feels lively and relevant.

The design is part of the appeal too. The hardback textured cover shows articles that made a difference in the subjects’ lives – Marie Curie’s is full of chemical symbols, test-tubes and writing implements, whereas Frida Kahlo has monkeys, skulls, watermelon and the Mexican flag. The colour theme from the cover is then extended throughout the book – each is highly illustrated in colour.

The books also contain glossaries, indexes and timelines for quick glances, and so far the personalities chosen bear out an equality in gender and global significance. (The sixth title, publishing in the autumn, is Charles Darwin). Frida Kahlo publishes to coincide with the V&A’s upcoming exhibition (London), and Amelia Earhart and Leonardo Da Vinci titles tie in well with the Year of Engineering. It’s been 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela, so it’s fitting to have that title too.

These are wonderful treasures for any child’s bookcase, and an absolute pleasure to read, share and own. I’d recommend 7+ years – but they are of equally good quality and substance for those just starting secondary school who need to do topic work. You can buy Little Guides to Great Lives: Marie Curie here. And the others here.

she persisted

While we’re dealing with biographies, and seeing as I’ve cheated on having just ‘one book of the week’, you might also extend your wishlist to include She Persisted Around the World by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. This book profiles 13 women who changed history, particularly those who were told to quiet down and had to strongly persist. Including Marie Curie, but also Sor Juana, Leymah Gbowee, Wangari Maathai, this is an unusual collection and profiles each woman in just a couple of sentences. It’s a flavour, an inspiration perhaps. You can buy it here.

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Humanatomy by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by George Ermos and Jem Maybank

humanatomyAs a mother and primary school librarian, I’m always on the lookout for new non-fiction that complements the curriculum, providing help with homework or imbuing further understanding in a topic, or even stimulating further curiosity and wonder. I love to be able to say, “Go look in this book for the answer,” rather than following a web link that so often disappoints.

This brilliantly high quality book, Humanatomy How the Body Works, is a well-organised and thoughtful guide to the major organ systems in the human body. Perfectly written to assist and stimulate children in Key Stage Two and above, adults will also be sure to find something they didn’t know.

The book begins with an open-out flip section illustration of each of the body’s major organ systems – including of course the nervous system, circulatory system etc. It’s body-shaped, and manages to show both male and female, two different skin tones, as well as front and back of the body where necessary to show differences in that particular circulatory system.

The main part of the book follows suit by dividing into chapters for each organ system, with an introduction explaining how the different systems work together. Each system chapter links back to the flip out illustration, but also contains its own hugely-detailed and annotated diagrams. There is a skin diagram in the integumentary system, which reminds me of one I had to annotate for my GCSE (many moons ago). However, this doesn’t read like a school text book. Instead, facts are presented as answers to interesting questions that children might ask. For example, why do we itch and scratch, why do bruises change colour, why do our hands go wrinkly in the bath, why do we burp? etc.

There are also bitesize sentence facts in small round circles throughout – highlighted ‘Did you know?’. And quite often, I didn’t!

The pages are well designed – a good use of colour, and large illustrations of children tasting, sneezing, shivering for example, which keeps the eye moving across the page. There are numerous diagrams, all labelled to prove the point the text is trying to make.

The circulatory system is dealt with particularly well – using the classic red and blue to show the difference between oxygenated and deoxygenated blood, but in a clever diagram complete with arrows, and separating out the heart and the lungs on the page so that the way the blood flows can be seen clearly. Having just watched a child learn this at school, I know this bit of the book would have been an invaluable learning addition.

The book does cover the reproductive system, without going into exactly how sex works, but deals more with DNA and how each person is individualised. Add to that a detailed, comprehensive and accessible glossary, and thick good quality paper, and this is a nonfiction book produced to the highest order. Well executed, well designed and thoroughly informative. A joy to read and a pleasure to stock at home and in the school library. I’ll need two copies! You can buy one here.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

ghost boys‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is a question most children’s authors face at some point in their career, or on every school visit. I’ve noticed that some of the best stories spring from tiny news items hidden away on the side columns – little quirks of human misadventure. But sometimes a book springs from a really big news item. Ghost Boys is a story that is meant to bring to mind the shooting of Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy shot by a police officer in Ohio in 2014.

It’s a powerful story upon which to set a children’s book, but seeing as it involved a child itself, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be the subject of a book for this age range, especially when the author deals with the subject so sensitively, making it accessible without hiding or covering up.

Parker Rhodes has moved her story to Chicago, where twelve year old Jerome walks to school, does his homework, looks after his little sister, and tries to keep his head down. But when new boy Carlos moves to the school from San Antonio, he shows Jerome that having a toy gun can keep away the bullies. And the police officer mistakes it for a real gun, and shoots Jerome dead.

Half the story is told after the event, as Jerome’s ghost looks at what is happening after his death, and half is the recap of what happened up until Jerome was shot. It’s a compelling way to tell the story and lets Parker Rhodes introduce her ‘ghost boys’, all the other boys who have died as a result of prejudice, including the famous Emmett Till.

The case of Emmett Till is well-known in America for being a huge influence on the civil rights movement, and what happened to him is explained thoroughly within this book, and although graphic, is dealt with sensitively and honestly, bringing history to life by letting Till tell his own story to Jerome’s ghost.

But it is the one living human in Jerome’s story who can see his ghost that brings the story up-to-date and literally breathes life into it. Sarah, the daughter of the police officer who shot Jerome, is able to see Jerome’s ghost, and through their dialogue, they come to understand the impact of the incident on both families. It is through this interaction that the reader is able to explore racism and prejudice, and come away with the author’s plea that the readers learn from history.

Written in short, sharp, fairly graphic chapters, this is an engaging, fast-paced book, which is also wise and authoritative. Jerome’s death is explored within a context of racism, but also within the context of his own life – exploring his relationship with his sister and grandmother, his hopes and dreams, encounters with the bullies at school, and the significance of his place in society, his upbringing, his schooling. All are factors that make up the boy, and Parker Rhodes skillfully interweaves all the elements that divide Jerome and Sarah, as well as the basic human traits that unite them.

In the end, a young reader will come away with a greater understanding of the consequences of ingrained prejudice, the divisions in society that need to be healed, and the importance of life itself. You can buy it here.