Book of the Week

Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer

armistice runnerTom Palmer has been writing books about sport for some time, and combining history and sport to bring each of those subjects to children who wouldn’t necessarily access the other. Armistice Runner is Palmer’s latest book, published in conjunction with Barrington Stoke, and placed perfectly in commemoration of the centenary. But publishing something at an opportune time doesn’t make it a success – it takes a whole host of other factors. Factors that Palmer demonstrates in abundance in his latest book – a gripping story that parallels and contrasts historical and modern, pointing to the individual to bring out the whole, and dazzling the reader with its historical research, compelling descriptions, and mostly, its massively empathetic characters.

Lily is struggling to compete in her fell-running races, often losing to a rival competitor named Abbie. Maybe it’s because Lily has other things on her mind. Her grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and her father is increasingly upset by the disease’s development. When they go to visit, Lily’s running reminds her grandmother of her own grandfather – a fell runner himself, who also served at the Front during the First World War. When Lily discovers her great-great-grandfather’s (Ernest’s) diaries, they help her to make connections with her grandmother, as well as give her the confidence and inspiration to keep attacking her own runs.

The book splits off into dual narratives – the reader exploring the historical diaries alongside Lily, and thus as invested emotionally as Lily herself. When she stops reading because of an incident with her family, the reader feels Lily’s frustration at being unable to dive back into the diaries and carry on, and yet the reader also wants to hear more about Lily’s story. It’s a well-concocted balance of voices.

The parts of the book in Ernest’s voice are evocative of the Front (he was a runner messenger on the front lines) and yet not so gruesome or devastating as to put off young readers – a feat hard to capture. Again, the balance is just right. Descriptions of rotting flesh feel very real, as do Ernest’s emotions and friendships, and it becomes apparent how delicate the communications were during the war at the Front, particularly in the days and hours preceding the Armistice.

This is a good view of the effect of war on the individual, and Palmer draws clever comparisons between the two time periods – Lily’s and Ernest’s – in terms of them both dealing with loss, loyalty, friendship and seeing things from others’ points of view.

Palmer deals particularly sensitively with Lily’s grandmother. It can be confusing for a pre-teen, at a time in which they’re dealing with defining their own identity, to have a close relative mis-remember who they are. And Palmer explores Lily’s emotions in dealing with her little brother and her father with regards to their relationships with the grandmother, and her debilitating disease. It can be upsetting to see one’s parents in pain, at the same time as discovering that they’re fallible creatures themselves who don’t have all the answers. And Lily tries to have the right answers for her little brother.

Ernest’s grief is also portrayed – his struggle with the loss of his brother, and seeing his own parents suffer – but Palmer brings in here the emotional release of physical exercise. Fell running is distinctive in the effort needed to run uphill and the strength of character involved, but also the freefall sensation of running downhill in fell running – the battle against one’s own instincts to hold back and retain control.

The story of Lily’s great-great grandfather’s past and the lessons he learns about reaching across barriers, and loyalty to others, helps strengthen Lily’s confidence in dealing with her own rivalries, and her family issues, showing that the past really can inform the future.

And I can’t help but mention how accessible the text is – both in that it has been written for publisher Barrington Stoke, (specialists in producing books for struggling readers), but also in that Palmer has two genders telling the story, and a female dominating, in the type of story (sport and World War I) usually dominated by men.

If the book stimulates discussion and further study, you’d do well to look at Tom Palmer’s own website with its brilliant range of accompanying resources. And you can buy the book here.

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

no fixed addressIf the subject matters weren’t so tough and gritty, readers would float through Nielsen’s stories like a cloud. She writes the kind of books that a child devours in an afternoon, or sneaks a read of in double maths because they just can’t put them down, and even the most reluctant readers will be hooked by her prose. Her words conjure moving images in the head; a full immersion in the text. Her latest, No Fixed Address, is perhaps her best yet, and reaches to a slightly younger audience than her previous YA novels.

Thirteen-year-old Felix and his mother Astrid move into a van, temporarily ‘borrowed’ from Astrid’s former boyfriend, after they are evicted from their shabby apartment at the beginning of the summer. Astrid convinces Felix that it’s a temporary adventure – a summer of being flexible and moving around, but when school starts again and months later they are still living in a van, and Astrid has sworn Felix to secrecy for fear of the Ministry of Children and Family Development taking him away, Felix realises that their situation is rather more desperate than his mother is letting on.

Nielsen deals with Felix’s situation with pathos and skill. She shows when and how Felix is embarrassed, whether it’s from lack of personal hygiene, coping in deteriorating weather, or forming friendships when there is such a huge secret lurking in the background. She portrays Felix with humour and positivity – he’s so likeable that the reader feels his pain and embarrassment as their own.

Her portrayal of Astrid is nicely contentious – she is not overtly evil as Roald Dahl might have written her, nor good and compassionate, but somewhere in-between. This is a nuanced look at parenthood. Astrid is authentic, written astutely; Nielsen shows a damaged view of motherhood and the bad choices a person can make, but also offers a sympathetic look at the effects of depression, and envelopes the whole relationship with a feeling that although Astrid fails in many areas, she does have an overwhelming love for her son. This is inadequate parenting indeed, but not cruelty.

The reader will feel impatient with Astrid – she’s a fly-by-her-pants kind of mother – shifting Felix from four different homes before resorting to the van, which isn’t even hers, and she acts rather carelessly and disrespectfully, lying to authorities and so on. But the book poses questions around motherhood and parenting that will give the reader an insight into moral choices, and when sympathy and empathy are due.

Felix’s two friends are capably written; I particularly appreciated the way in which Felix reacquaints himself with Dylan – a friend from early childhood – showing the circularity of life, as well as juxtaposing Felix’s own life against Dylan’s, and showcasing their witty friendship banter. Their friend Winnie has a shade of Hermione about her, but is a good charming sidekick within the story, and it is the characters on the sidelines who lend the story its ability to impart moral growth and learning – the teacher and shopkeepers who show that small kindnesses can make all the difference.

In fact, what one takes away from the novel, is that despite the grittiness of the subject matter and the exploration of the harsher elements of life, this is ultimately a story about friendship and community. Although Felix comes up with his own solution to his problems through his skill at trivia and his love for quiz shows, Nielsen explores that not every problem can be solved on its own – to help yourself sometimes you need to let others help you.

Nielsen adeptly explores how people often hide their problems either from embarrassment or shame or simply an unwillingness to be open, and even close friends can miss the signs of a problem. She makes the point throughout that it is through sharing problems that they can be solved. This is ultimately a novel about life’s realities, about the power of community, and it should not only grip readers but make them appreciative of what they have.

This is a massively accessible piece of first person fiction that has heart and humour, and is a compelling read. You can buy it here.

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett

the restless girls

It’s not hard in today’s modern society to view the Grimm fairy tales as patriarchal in their outlook, some verging on misogynistic, and although I firmly believe that they should be read within the context of their time, it’s easy to see how modern authors might want to write their own versions to realign some of the prejudices expressed within the original tales. Grimm’s original The Twelve Dancing Princesses, published in 1812, bears many of the hallmark tropes of patriarchal fairy tale narratives – the girls are locked up at night by their father, they keep their night-time activities secret, and they are nothing but the prize for the male who solves the mystery of where they go (he may choose whomever of them he wants for his wife). Thus, a father who cannot accept the girls’ transition to maturity (the wearing out of their shoes), girls who act in a duplicitous manner, and princesses who are passive entities and must submit to their fate.

However, the original tale does hold some morals that may be of use today – the idea that parents need to give their adolescents some freedom (otherwise they sneak out in secrecy to who knows where!); and conversely a lesson to young readers that duplicity is always outed in the end. And there are numerous variations on the Grimm’s version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, each pulling out morals according to their era.

Luckily for us, Jessie Burton has re-crafted the story for our times, retaining the key narrative but twisting it just enough to add modern flavour and feminism, as well as her own philosophy and musings on life’s lessons. Enhanced by Angela Barrett’s dazzlingly diverse illustrations (of what I’ve seen so far in early proofs), this finally is a story for the 21st century.

Queen Laurelia’s tragic death in a motor car accident results in the King’s over-protectiveness of his daughters: instead of letting them pursue their passions and talents (everything from astronomy to painting, comedy to botany), he denies them their lessons and belongings and locks them up in a dormitory. The girls turn from despair to hope when they discover a secret passageway behind their mother’s portrait, and take night-time excursions across a lake and through a magical, wondrous silver forest before dancing the night away at a palace filled with talking animals, where a constant party, with feasting and merriment, is in sway. Dance, here, is very much an expression of freedom and happiness rather than an overtly feminine activity.

Burton doesn’t just update the story with modern nuance by including motor cars and telephones; she litters it with her musings on life, philosophies that determine our own age but also future times, and asks the reader to think hard too, whether it be about the role of imagination in our lives, where story meets memory in remembering someone lost, and when darkness can sometimes be kind.

This is a feminist re-telling, so Burton twists the story, overtly judging their neglectful father who encourages strange men to spy upon the princesses, and wryly exploring the teamwork of the 12 sisters, although she also showcases their individuality by naming each, and by having each sister use their different strengths to overcome adversity. In the end, their supreme wit and intelligence reigns as they turn the King’s own words against himself, and seize their future with ferocity. In our time in which girls self-harm, Burton shows how girls can save themselves, forge a sisterhood, look out for each other, and use wisdom to seek positive futures. At the same time, it doesn’t feel ‘anti-men’, because the advisers surrounding the King embrace the future too.

Within the writing itself are sumptuous descriptions – one would be hard pushed to read about the food offered at the palace without salivating – and although richly English, with its hot buttered toast and sausages and mash, there are spices from around the world, and indeed the book feels global in its telling.

This is not just a feminist tale – Burton beguiles the reader with the magic of fairy tales by retaining initial features such as a secret door to a secret world, the lights and twinkling forest treats that the girls find, lush descriptions of food and parties, and she also subverts all political assumptions by populating the night-time party with mysteriously flamboyant anthropomorphised animals.

the restless girls illustrationInitial illustrations (having only seen an early proof) depict the girls as individuals, busy at their own tasks, yet with a collaborative spirit, and indeed their spirit is apparent in the movement and strength demonstrated by Frida, the eldest daughter, shown early on flinging back curtains to let light illuminate the King’s advisers – an illustrative metaphor.

This is a book of freedom and independence; dare I say girl power. Written like a waltz, it dances the reader through the pages with pace and movement, and celebrates laughter and love in swirling pirouettes of plot. You can buy your own copy here.

Sportopedia by Adam Skinner, Illustrated by Mark Long

sportopediaWhen I play trivial pursuit, it’s always the orange wedge I find hardest to win. Orange – sport and leisure. And when I look at the ‘sports shelf’ in my library, I can see our range of football books, a few on gymnastics and some lesser known sports, but there’s rarely an all-encompassing encyclopaedia of sport. Until now.

Sportopedia is going to fill that void and help me win the orange wedge. Featuring more than 60 sports, this is an enjoyable, knowledgeable introduction to sports that is well-organised and easy on the eye.

Split into logical sections – ball sports, racket sports, athletics, water sports and so on – each sport is afforded a single or double page spread with an introduction, a large illustration showing the sport, and then some standard ‘boxes-off’, which highlight the basic rules of the sport, as well as engaging facts. For Diving, facts include the depth of a diving pool and when diving became part of the Olympic Games. For other sports, author Adam Skinner documents famous incidents in sport and celebrates record-breakers.

But there are also quirks. In Diving, there is a section on cliff diving. And in Long-Distance Running, there is a segment on ultra-runners, which made me realise that my measly 8K is no achievement in comparison to Serge Girard’s 27,011 km in 365 consecutive days.

Long’s illustrations really lift the book – it wouldn’t have made sense to choose specific photographs from the millions that exist, and the illustrations strike a perfect balance between showing humour and illustrating the sport. They are also sumptuously bright, with a heavy leaning towards the primary palette, which gives the book a feeling of simplicity and ease. Although, I’m a little concerned that none of the long distance runners look as if they’re enjoying themselves, (the gymnasts certainly are).

Many of the sports highlighted are accompanied by an infographic that lends authority to the book, whether it be illuminating the areas of a tennis court or the scores of a dart board. There is also mention of kit, and how names of sports, and entrants to sports, have changed over the years. What’s particularly pleasing, and necessary of course, is the diversity of all the competitors illustrated and celebrated – male, female, from many ethnicities, able-bodied and Paralympians.

The ‘winter sports’ are considered in the four pages devoted to The Winter Olympics towards the back of the book in the chapter titled ‘Sporting Events’, with skiing, curling and skating among others, but there is less detail about these.

But I think my favourite piece is the introduction. Explaining that sports have always existed, and that competition is part of human life and that anybody can take part. As well as talking about the lack of discrimination exercised by sport, the introduction also explains the benefits of sport – not just in the winning, but the importance of physical well-being, teamwork and discipline. And how big a part sport plays in human history. This is a fabulous book, introducing less active children to sport, promoting the rules and facts of each sport for trivia seekers, and tracking leading figures and sports milestones for enthusiasts.

I might not be able to run for 365 consecutive days, but I know more about Archery and Kabaddi than I did yesterday. You can buy it here.

The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

skylarks warQuoted in the bibliography as an influence, and reading almost like an homage to Testament of Youth, Hilary McKay’s latest novel The Skylarks’ War is a highly readable, beautifully imagined story of a girl coming of age during the devastation of World War I. Clarry and her older brother are largely ignored by their single parent father, but spend their summers in glorious freedom in Cornwall at their grandparents’, where wonderfully charismatic and free-spirited cousin Rupert rules the roost. But when war breaks out, family and friendships are wrenched apart, and the Skylark summers seem a thing of the distant past.

McKay has a remarkable gift for writing. Her characters are fully rounded, developed people who you want to stay with long after the last page is turned. Clarry reads like a warm hug, Rupert is exactly the heroic soldier one would fall for, and Clarry’s brother Peter is a complicated, sensitive sort – he heart-wrenchingly jumps from a moving train to avoid boarding school and damages his leg, with only the reader fully aware of the consequences of his actions, seeing as war will erupt a few years later.

Also lending heart and soul to the novel is Simon, Peter’s friend from boarding school, who gives the reader a glimpse of the social history of the piece from the knowing standpoint of a more enlightened future. Simon, as much as the reader, is patently in love with Rupert, but of course homosexuality was forbidden then.

As well as character, McKay writes with specificity, elegance and precision in her portrayal of the time, lavishing period detail, but more intelligently, rendering the emotions of the time so clearly – leaving the reader with a sense of the social history without in any way preaching. She shies away from anything too gruesome in her sparse prose about the Front, but there is enough tension and heartbreak to transport the reader to the desolation of that time and place.

McKay concentrates mostly on the home front, managing to include both the suspension of time for women left at home as they waited for news and letters, but also the occupying of that time and the growth of importance of women as they took up roles in society away from the domestic sphere, and become more visible. Above all, what marks the book is the amount of hope and courage portrayed, and the feeling that Clarry’s breathless determination and grit will prevail.

This sort of storytelling is reminiscent of those great classic novels – the gathering of the family around letters from Father in Little Women, the closeness in relationships in Noel Streatfield novels, the insight into women’s feelings in Testament of Youth.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, this is a most beautiful introduction to that time period for children, and an unforgettable classic read. One of the best children’s books this year – do not miss. For 9+ years. You can buy your copy here.

A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, illustrated by Rose Blake

history of pictures for childrenThe children of today don’t seem to have the same vested need for non-fiction books as generations ago – more often than not they turn to Wiki, or use the school-provided web links to research facts for their homework.

Whatever you think of this, publishers are increasingly turning to more enticing, influential, enduring ways to present their non-fiction. And seeing as children are so tuned in to YouTube for information and entertainment, sometimes looking to a vlogger who talks directly at them about a subject, what better way to present a book than as a conversation.

The adult version of A History of Pictures published in 2016, but now there is a children’s version, A History of Pictures for Children by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, with similar text and the same reproductions, but adapted for children in a skilful and intelligent way.

This book is a conversation between artist David Hockney and art critic Martin Gayford as they attempt to explore and explain the history of art, and yet also the creation of art. Told paragraph by paragraph as dialogue between the men, reading the book is like listening to two teenagers deconstruct a game of Fortnite. There is knowledge and depth encompassed within a pacey conversation that conveys the intimacy of friends. Their lightness of tone brings amusement along with understanding.

Set into clear chapters, from ‘making marks’ to ‘light and shadows’, ‘mirrors and reflections’ and more, the abundance of full and half page reproductions of paintings lend their discussion a tone of absolute authority. For what better way to teach than by example.

But rather than a straightforward look at the picture and then an explanation, as in an art gallery with plaque beside painting, this is a definite discussion in accessible yet non-condescending language. Not only is there the explanation of a painting or style from Gayford, but also interlocutions by Hockney that attempt to explore the spark of creativity behind the art. And comparisons that really illuminate the conversation, for example the similarities in use of depth of shadow in the Mona Lisa to photographs of early Hollywood stars. There is plenty for the modern child too – the last two chapters deal with moving images, and computer images respectively – not only in their creation but an analysis of where pictures will lead us – the veracity of them, their uses and potential dangers. By posing questions to each other, and answering their own, the two experts inspire the reader to really think.

history of pictures

Each chapter focusses the reader fully on the topic in hand – I loved the pages on looking at pictures as narratives, especially Hopper’s Nighthawks, as well as the artist’s use of particular objects within a painting – Hockney’s own Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy, as well as Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, and the lasting influence of the objects within the painting as well as the paintings themselves.

The book is titled ‘A History’ for a reason, and Hockney and Gayford skillfully talk through the changes and trends that happen within an art form – whether it be the reintroduction of the brushstroke with Manet, and the example of Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets as opposed to Bouguereau’s Mignon, or the connection of art across time and place.

This is a fantastic and fascinating book, illustrated throughout by Rose Blake, whose friendly and warm cartoons add fun and understanding to the text. Owners of the adult version will be jealous, I presume, at the updated content here, including a new chapter complete with new examples, but for children this is a fresh and excellent deconstruction of the subject (with a timeline and glossary), but more importantly, a winning conveyance of excitement and enthusiasm for the topic. You can buy it here.

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

the lost magicianWhen I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child I had no conception of the word ‘allegory’, and certainly hadn’t grasped the idea that I was reading a story that CS Lewis described as ‘supposal’: “Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there.

Piers Torday has taken Narnia to heart in his latest novel, The Lost Magician, writing it he says as an homage to Narnia. And although there is no Christian allegory, there is definitely much ‘supposing’, and a supposition of a world that mirrors our own in presenting conflict and argument and much darkness, except that, in Torday’s Folio (his version of Narnia), there are talking bears and a self-doubting unicorn.

It is 1945 and Simon, Patricia, Evie and Larry have survived the Blitz, despite the scars it has left on their memories. They arrive at Barfield Hall, a country house, where lives a female professor involved in experimentation revolved around imagination. Through a portal in a strange library in the attic they stumble across a world called Folio – an enchanted kingdom of bears and knights and other creatures found in stories, but also of futuristic fluid metallic robots. These two factions are at war, and the children’s learned horrors of their own war teaches them that they must stop this war, the key to which is finding the lost magician – the creator of the library who has been missing for centuries.

On the surface this novel is a good classic adventure story, with a cast of empathetic children who feel far more authentic than the Narnia quartet, with an intrusion of real world scars into their psyche. Simon, the eldest, has his perceived ideas of masculinity on display, wanting to show his prowess to emulate his war-hero father. Evie experienced trauma in the war, whereas for Larry, the youngest, shown still clutching his teddy and bumping him up the stairs (a la Christopher Robin and Pooh), the rubble of the Blitz was merely a grand landscape for exploration. With them all, their witness to the horror of war informs their decision making.

And the world of Folio that Torday has conjured feels as well-drawn as Wonderland. The reader can see the beauty of the green countryside of fairy-tale land – the house of the three bears, the trees, the fields, the wind buffeting the foliage. And yet also, all too clearly, the metallic glint of the oppositional city, with its enduring light glowing like a beacon of future possibility, and the metallic people, strong and upright.

So on one level this is, as Narnia, a simple trip into a new world through a portal in the old, told in gripping, pacey language with tension and pathos and humour, with Torday’s marvellous descriptive language carrying the reader through with a light touch of his magic pen. And yet, there is so much more when one looks beyond the surface enchantment.

Of course there are literary allusions within the text. Nuggets of Narnia are dripped like gold leaves into the novel, and any novel that uses a library as a portal is bound to make use of the literary canon of children’s literature, and a particular action sequence reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark….

But peel further, and the layers of the novel reveal much much more. Whereas Larry enters Folio through the shelves of ‘Read’ books – representing fiction, Evie enters through the UnReads – the books that represent the facts of the future, the non-fiction. And there is still another shelf in the library through which no-one enters, but which poses the greatest existential threat of all – the Never Reads. These represent ignorance.

When the children enter Folio, they discover that the Reads are at war with the UnReads – a clash of fiction and fact, of fairy tale characters and fact-based sci-fi robots. Larry chooses the Reads, as one would expect from the way he treats his teddy as a live being. Evie ‘betrays’ the other children by choosing the UnReads, wanting to believe in the bright shiny future of hard fact. Here, Torday is clever to draw some ambiguity over the ‘truths’ given by the Queen of the Unreads – a shady figure although physically illuminated in bright numbers, with a body that’s essentially fluid – much like her facts. She is mirrored of course on the White Witch.

By casting his war as story vs fact Torday is speaking to the very heart of what is happening in our society today. The battles in the book are ferocious, the sides pitted heavily against each other; a fractious world of polarised arguments in an angry climate. Here truth is twisted to lies, story is laid as propaganda, news is fake, and trust is misguided.

But this is a novel, and so Torday waves his wand to provide some clarity. The children discover that stories, even of one’s own past, are crucial in providing explanation for our world. That knowledge is valuable and true facts worth remembering, that imagination can provide a crutch when dealing with our own reality.

And yet all this is at risk from the fire and fury of the Never Reads – the ignorant. This last ‘shelf’ of books poses a threat to both the Reads and the UnReads. Whether the threat of the ignorant recalls the Nazi book burning, or Trump’s reported lack of reading will depend upon the reader – and this too is where Torday makes another point. This book is about the power of the reader, and particularly the child as reader – again a paean to those Victorian and Edwardian children’s authors, Carroll, Lear, Barrie, Milne, and CS Lewis who understood the deep influence of the literature people read when they were children, and the power of the child to see wonder in the world.

By the hopeful end (this is a children’s book), the reader understands their own power and also how to use it wisely in reaching across the gulf to understand another’s point of view, recognising that humans have more in common than that which divides them.

There is much more here too – the importance of libraries, a clever nod to the evil of numbers in WW2, building the new without destruction of the old, an understanding that not all children are avid readers – Simon in the novel is dyslexic in a time when dyslexia wasn’t recognised. But above all, there is the beauty of Torday’s writing in telling a good story.

The Lost Magician proves that Torday is on top of his game in spinning the storytelling magic – this magician is anything but lost and any reader who picks up the book will be well and truly found. You can buy it here.

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.