Book of the Week

Waiting for Callback by Perdita and Honor Cargill

waiting for callback

Whether it’s the inspired pairing of a mother and daughter author team, or simply the authors’ great perceptive insight, Waiting for Callback auditions brilliantly for the part of freshest new voice in young teen fiction.

It tells the story of fifteen year old Elektra, as she struggles to fulfil her dream of becoming an actor, at the same time as she juggles with the everyday dramas a teen faces, from a row with a best friend, schoolwork, a crush on a boy, to frustrating parents and an eccentric grandmother.

The book cleverly portrays the unglamorous world of acting – even when Elektra signs with an agency, it’s mundanely situated above a dentist surgery, and she gets offered bit part roles in advertisements and student films – the part of Dead Girl Number Three, for example – there’s no sudden red carpet or flight to Hollywood.

Accompanying this realistic portrayal of a teen acting career are the fleshed out characters surrounding Elektra. Her parents are a phenomenal supporting cast in the book – their emotional and financial support for Elektra are depicted beautifully, as are their moments of irritation and frustration with their own daughter. Although told in the first person by Elektra, the character of her mother is captured beautifully – the conversations of ‘how did it go’ after her auditions are spot on, as are the hours she spends waiting for her daughter to finish filming some bit part, as well as the father’s detached yet loving interest. Their accurate portrayal induced many wry smiles and snorts of agreement.

There’s incredible detail of the acting classes that Elektra takes too – she finds much of it pointless to begin with, but warms to it, and her enjoyment shines through despite her teenage ‘lack of enthusiasm’ attitude.

The writing is so confident and clear that the reader is pulled along on Elektra’s journey, and roots for every casting with her. Add to this the constant deadpan comedy, and this is a pleasurable and fun read from start to finish.

There are some powerful lessons in here too – that no matter what one’s profession, it takes graft (grit and determination and hard work) to get ahead – that envy of others in the profession gets you nowhere and is often misplaced, and that patience is indeed a virtue. But the story is told in such a light, fun-filled way, that none of these lessons is forced.

It also skims lightly over the idea of introspection and empathy; Elektra falls out with her best friend at one point, and it’s a good lesson on how to handle friendships when interests diverge and boyfriends take up friendship time. Learning to like a friend’s chosen other half is a lifelong skill, as is respecting their passions, whatever they may be.

There’s also Elektra’s crush on a fellow teen actor, which is well handled in a gentle way. There is nothing graphic or risqué about the love interest, which makes it a ‘safe’ read for the youngest teen wannabe. In fact, the title may very well apply to teenage crushes as well as acting careers!

The prose is interspersed with realistic letters back and forwards from the agency to Elektra and her parents, and this gives a good insight into the acting world as well as breaking up the text. There are also plenty of up-to-date references – the use of the internet and mobiles, things that are written rather than said, Buzzfeed, emoticons, quotes from modern actors, celebrity – but also clever allusions to Waiting for Godot and Austen – in ‘waiting and dating’ some things don’t change.

This is a warm, encouraging read for teenagers. Believable characters, a realistic plot and plenty of humour. Highly recommend for 11+ years. Publishes 28 January. You can buy it here.

 

The Many Worlds of Albie Bright by Christopher Edge

Albie Bright

One of the many rewards from reading good novels is that they can teach you about something new in a gentle narrative way. Sometimes it’s something you didn’t realise you wanted to know about. I would never take a course in quantum physics, but this book for eight years and upwards not only taught me about quantum physics, but also gently taught me to make peace with my lot in life. And alongside the complex subjects and depth of thought, there was a dose of humour, and allusions to bananas.

Albie (named after Einstein) by his scientist parents, is a curious Year 6 boy, who is grieving for his mother who died just two weeks before the book begins. To assuage his sadness, and to discover where she might have gone after death, he explores the idea of parallel universes – could she be alive in a different time and space? After studying Schrodinger’s cat theory in a book (and Edge explains this particularly well), Albie tries to recreate the experiment and transport himself to a parallel universe using a box, a laptop and a rotting banana, in the hope that, in that universe, his mother might still be alive.

To his, and the reader’s great surprise, it works. Although, of course, if there is one parallel universe, there must be many – and each one is slightly different from the next. Albie doesn’t find exactly what he’s looking for, but he finds out some intriguing answers to some very powerful questions. With every new universe, his family appears in a slightly different guise – this conceit works very well in imbuing a child with empathy – being able to see their own situation differently, and also view things from the point of view of those around them. Albie is confronted with the death of different family members, a disability, and his parents’ and his changing success in the various universes. All of which open his eyes to his own reality.

This is an extraordinary novel for children that sets out to explore the possibilities of our world – like a child itself, and like science itself – discovering and exploring through experimenting and seeking. Although it throws up questions about life and religion and death and science and meaning, it’s all on a level that can be understood by any eight year old. An admirable feat. It also incorporates other elements of science, as well as quantum physics, such as space exploration, energy resources and suchlike.

There was considerable sadness at Albie’s mother’s death – at times it was highly emotive, and this did drop a pin of doubt when reading – a sensitive child may find it difficult. The different scenarios of Albie’s life in the parallel universe may need some unpacking (it’s a book I would encourage conversation about) – I was saddened more than once at Albie’s experiences and ‘what ifs’ – but the answers at the end of the book do provide a satisfactory conclusion for this age group.

There are many lovely humorous incidents too, for example Edge’s explanation of an NQT (not-quite-a-teacher) made me laugh, and the scenes are painted vividly.

Dipping into the book is like entering a brave new world for today’s child – they might even find some answers to questions they weren’t asking. You can buy your own copy in this universe here.

Odd Socks by Michelle Robinson and Rebecca Ashdown

Odd Socks

If a bestselling book now turned into a Christmas Day prime time TV animation simply tells the story of a stick (Stickman by Julia Donaldson), then anything is possible in a picture book. Odd Socks is a love story between a pair of socks, told in rhyming couplets for young children (and sentimental adults). With spools of humour and no whiff of smelly socks, this is an adorable new addition to any picture book collection.

Suki and Sosh are a new pair of socks. Blue and white striped with a red heel and toe. Their characters are outlined from the beginning – content, happy, warm:

“Exactly,” said Sosh to his warm, woolly wife.
“A match made in heaven! Now, this is the life.”

The artworks extend the personification further. The room is bright, colourful in extremis – with a toy box bursting with personified toys, and brightly coloured knickknacks. The underwear drawer sports a pair of y-front pants with eyes and mouth – it’s not nearly as horrific as you might envisage – even the toy dinosaur betrays a friendly grin.

The brightness spills onto the ensuing pages, with adventures galore when the pair of socks adorn their small human – partaking in all sorts of activities such as accompanying the boy to the park by being worn in all sorts of shoes – jellies and wellies…. Until the day a hole appears in Suki’s big toe. A common problem for children who wear socks!

The comedy and tragedy begin – “Oh, darn it” they curse with a wry smile, although the tragedy of Suki’s growing hole is treated like a terminal illness. Dark days indeed. A villain comes on the scene to warn of impending doom:

“Big Bob was an old sock, a real winter woolly –
a loner, a moaner, a bit of a bully.
“I’ve seen it before with my first woolly wife –
that hole was the start of the end of her life.”

More hilarity for those adults reading aloud to the children – the socks are pictured discussing the quandary on a washing line – each sock with animated expressive faces, against a bright and cheery garden backdrop. Look out for the cat and dog! The illustrations are deceptively simple – squiggles and curves – but with just the right amount of white space in between the lush colours to give shape to the book.

The story continues – I shan’t ruin the excellent surprise ending – but the humour continues unabated from both author and illustrator – the use of the word ‘odd’ in particular, the search for missing socks and slippers including the deadly tumble dryer, and the dangers of the dog.

Children will adore the action scenes depicting the dog, as well as the abundance of colour depicting the craft materials and doodled shapes that dominate the end of the book.

It’s a love story, with domestic references to charm the whole family. The rhyming and scansion are perfect – the illustrations bright and cheery. This is a sharply observed well thought out picture book – there’s nothing woolly about it. It published in hardback this week – but it’s one of those you’ll want with a hard cover, in case, like the aforementioned sock – it develops defects from overuse! You can purchase your copy here.

The Scarlet Files: Cat Burglar by Tamsin Cooke

cat burglar

Burglars, kidnapping, escaped wild animals – the content in this book could easily leave one to believe that this is not a children’s book. However, sometimes the most unpredictable content makes for the best read.

Thirteen year old Scarlet is a cat burglar – along with her father they break into properties restoring stolen antiquities and treasures to the rightful owners. And they’re rather good at it. But then one day they steal an ancient Aztec bracelet with strange and magical powers, and Scarlet’s world begins to change – not least herself and her physical being. With elements of fantasy mixed with real world life and death decisions, this is a gripping tale, far from anything else aimed at this readership.

It’s a page-turning action adventure. The language is simple, keeping up with the pace of the plot with little time for lengthy description or in-depth exposition, or indeed too much character development. Scarlet is brave, plucky, canny and worldly – although her lack of expertise in modern technology is rather surprising. To fill the gap, Tamsin Cooke introduces the boy next door – not just a heartthrob, but a savvy geek who is able to hack computers and provide backup techy assistance.

However, there’s no time for romance because of the pacey action unfolding page by page – which means that the book is perfectly poised to attract all readers, even as young as 9+ years, because although there are some illegal goings-on, such as driving a car underage (not to mention the breaking and entering), there is always someone on hand to point out the moral ambiguities and illegalities of the situations.

It’s also guaranteed to attract those who otherwise might struggle to make it through a 200 page book, because of the speed of the drama – paced like an adult thriller book.

The book is gripping, a race-against-the-clock action packed thriller. Genre writing for kids, and that is truly exciting. You can buy it here.

Confessions of An Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier, as told to Michelle Cuevas

confessions of an imaginary

Don’t be fooled – although the cover looks rather young, with doodled drawings of personified socks and plants and a dog, with letters scribbled on and made to look pretty, this is a far deeper book than first appearances suggest.

It purports to be the memoir of Jacques Papier. Unfortunately for Jacques, everyone seems to hate him, from the family dog who barks incessantly at him, to his classmates who fail to pick him for a team, from his teacher who ignores his waving hand when he knows the answer to the question, to even his parents who need to be reminded by his sister Fleur to set a place for him at the dinner table.

But then suddenly he discovers that he’s not who he thought he was. He’s not Fleur’s brother at all, but her imaginary friend. Amid Jacques’ existential breakdown, lots of questions arise, some from Fleur, some from other imaginary friends, and some from within himself. Questions that arise with all of us, but especially children – some of whom may feel somewhat invisible themselves:

“The truth is,” she replied, “you’re only as invisible as you feel, imaginary or not.”

The actual author, Michelle Cuevas, goes deeper than that though, and weaves philosophy into her book with her magical way with words, making the reader think as much, if not more, than Jacques about what it means to be real and what our imagination enables us to do:

“There’s lots of real things you can’t touch or see,” replied Fleur. “There’s music, and wishes, and gravity.”

Reminiscent of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, Cuevas manages to ask the difficult questions whilst telling a witty and clever children’s story:

“I think it’s like the earth and the moon,” I explained. “The light of the moon is an illusion. It’s actually just reflecting light from the sun, bounding it back like a mirror. We’re like that moon, and without the people who imagined us, it’s all darkness.”

Cuevas questions theories of the self, in that Jacques can’t look in a mirror to see what he looks like, he is only seen through someone else’s eyes. This is funny for children, as Jacques becomes other children’s imaginary friends – changing shape into what they imagine – for instance he does end up as an imaginary dog at one point.

Some of the humour is aimed directly at the adult reader though – the imaginary friends have their own ‘Imaginaries Anonymous’ support group, into which Jacques is recruited while waiting in a psychologist’s (who deals specially in imaginary friends) waiting room. He also has a stale cookie and fruit juice at the end of the meeting. Other more adult wit includes Fleur’s father’s attempt to get Fleur to discuss her feelings using puppets, and the Office of Reassignment where imaginary friends go to fill out forms and find a new ‘real person’ to imagine them. The office has its own helpline too.

Jacques goes through quite an adventure to reach a satisfying conclusion, staying with various children in different imaginary friend guises, including staying with a boy called Bernard who feels more invisible than his imaginary friend. This gives Jacques a raison d’etre – he can help someone else become more visible. Bernard’s father also introduces a further facet – interesting facts about animals being able to see more than us, because they have more cones within their eyes.

In the end this book really gets you thinking – who are we, which bits of us are defined by others, or never seen by others, what makes something real? As Cuevas puts it:

“Who are you when there’s nobody around to remind you of your role, and no memories to regret or keep you warm.”

A fascinatingly humorous book that makes you question yourself and the world around you, and employs a rather jolly plot to do it. An excellent read. For 9+ years. You can buy it here. Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending a review copy.

 

Have You Seen Elephant? by David Barrow

have you seen elephant

There are very few picture perfect picture books. Some have great illustrations, some great words, and occasionally both. This one is exquisite, for not only does it pair words and illustrations well, but it prompts the reader to think – reminiscent of I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen for its use of inference.

Barrow’s debut picture book begins with elephant asking the small boy if he would like to play hide and seek. The boy decides that elephant should hide, but in a beautiful close up on the next page elephant warns the boy “I’m very good.” The boy and his dog count to ten and shout “Coming! Ready or not!” and the game begins.

The reader’s glee comes from the boy’s apparent ineptitude to see the ‘elephant in the room’ (although he might be pretending as one reader pointed out!), but the reader’s laughter also comes from the astuteness of the dog – he sniffs elephant out every time. For the reader, it’s plain to see where the elephant is – his bulk is hard to miss and of course this is part of the joke – but Barrow has executed each page beautifully – the illustrations in hues of blues or greys or purples or oranges depending on the room, giving the elephant a chance to fade into the background.

Particular joys include the page in which the boy asks his father if he’s seen an elephant – the father answers “What elephant?”, and the picture shows the reader that the elephant is holding the television screen on which the Dad is watching football.

Barrow’s endpapers (the motif of which continues onto the first page) tell a story in themselves. They are a series of portraits of family photographs (drawn in illustration) – from relatives not even in the story, to the boy’s mother and father on their wedding day, to the dog, the boy as a toddler, and at the back of the book – the elephant’s trunk weaselling into the photos.

Watch out too for the tortoise, who offers to play a different game with the boy, the elephant and the dog at the end – also warning he’s rather good at it. It’s left to the reader to decide if a tortoise really would be good at tag. Fabulous stuff, and definitely an illustrator to watch. Buy it here.

wheres elephant

David Barrow is not the only illustrator playing hide and seek with an elephant this year. Barroux has produced a stunning book, Where’s the Elephant? which through very clever use of a Where’s Wally inspired theme, aims to shock the reader into seeing how deforestation is affecting the planet. It’s another totally exquisite picture book.

The first page explores the three creatures the author wants the reader to find within the book – an elephant, a parrot and a snake. Then the first pages show a dense forest – trees of all different colours and types swamping the page with their magnificence. Barroux has used blues, oranges, yellows, greens to depict his trees – this page alone is a lesson in illustration.

The animals are hard to find. But gradually as the reader works through the book, the trees are given less and less space, at first just logged tree trunks are shown on the left of the page, then they start to crawl across, as houses, cars, roads take over the space. By the end the creatures are easy to spot – there is no camouflage, food, shelter left for them – and they are reduced to living in one tree, then just the zoo.

It’s a fabulous illustrative demonstration of what is happening, inspired by Barroux’s trip to Brazil. The shocking difference between the first page and the page of the one tree is quite something to behold. There is some kind of salvation at the end though. Read it with children – you’ll see the impact a picture book can have. You can buy it here.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

Hell and High Water

Opening with a filmic scene of main character Caleb and his father staging a Punch and Judy show, this scintillating excellently-written historical novel never lets up momentum. Caleb’s father is shortly thereafter accused of theft and transported to the Colonies. But Caleb knows his father is not guilty, and so he sets off on a journey to both find his only other living family – an estranged aunt, and to prove his father’s innocence.

When a body washes up on the beach near where his aunt lives, Caleb is swept into a world of smuggling and intrigue, mystery and lies, which leads him and his new-found family into terrifying danger.

Landman captures the eighteenth century brilliantly – from the clothes and transport, to the marketplace and food, not to mention the hardships and hierarchies that penetrated society.

In fact, for all that the plot is fast-paced and exciting, Landman also deals deftly with perceptions of race, gender and wealth, and their accompanying inequalities. Caleb has dark skin, and is treated like a leper in places, and mistaken for a slave boy. Meanwhile his aunt’s stepdaughter is given a lovely gender ‘twist’, as although a girl, she takes on all the boy’s roles – rowing the boat, hefting heavy items, even adopting the role of puppeteer, despite the negativity associated with female performers. Tanya plays beautifully with perceptions here – putting a historical setting to good use in exploring how our world has progressed (or in some cases not) in how we view race and gender.

The other inequality that Landman manipulates is wealth distribution – describing the hierarchy of society, and delving into questions of morality and generosity, or the lack thereof. Her descriptions are wry and satisfying:

“Both bonnet and gown seemed designed more to scream aloud their vast cost than to show her face or figure to their best advantage.”

Her key plot hinges on the different types of thievery – the starving petty thief’s need for sustenance versus the morally corrupt landowners who claim tax and insurance in illegal circumstances.

The historical references are rife and intriguing. Set specifically in 1752, Landman has fun playing with the Act of Parliament that lost the country 12 days so as to set the country in time with the rest of Europe. She also explains in the ‘author’s note’ at the end that her tale is inspired by true events of a villainous smuggling landowner and the sinking of his ship, the Nightingale in 1752.

The sea too is a huge inspiration for Landman – her descriptions of the landscape are atmospheric and dark, using tidal rivers to great effect from the sweep of the water, to the mud flats, and water penetrating the land. With many allusions to other literature, exploration of the role of parents and family, as well as themes of loyalty, bravery, and being morally upstanding – this is a work of beauty.

It is so well-written, the words stay even when the story is concluded:

“When Letty moved, she moved quietly, but sound behaves differently in the dark. Each creak of floorboard, each rustle of cloth is magnified. A breath becomes a shout, a footfall akin to the blast of a cannon.”

With descriptions of dead bodies, and an exhumation, moral corruption, and a growing love story, this is for the upper end of my age scale – recommended for 12+ years. You can buy it here.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for sending me a requested review copy.

The Bear Report by Thyra Heder

The Bear Report

This is an absolute beauty of a book – there is no better way to describe it. It speaks to any child disillusioned with their homework, or any child interested in our world, and to anybody who wants to be enchanted by stunning ink and watercolours.

Sophie has to write three things about polar bears for her Arctic homework. She’s just not interested and would much rather watch TV. Then a real polar bear appears in her living room, and although she’s shocked, she is amazingly still rather dismissive of him, until he shows her the Arctic for real, not just in pictures.

Together they explore the sights and sounds, the landscape and creatures, and once they arrive back home to Sophie’s house, her report knows no bounds – it takes over the living room – pictures plastered all over the television.

The selling point for this book is the magnificence and splendour of the illustrations. A slight fuzz obscures the pictures so that you feel as if you are seeing it through a thought bubble, but the expressions on Sophie’s face are so lifelike – so perfect, that you feel you are next to her. Her frustration at her homework, her amazement when the bear appears (she drops the remote control), her delight at fishing, and then her wonder at the Northern Lights and grit and determination when filling in her report at the end – all are exquisitely drawn – the illustrations in this book speak to perfection.

bear report 2

Of course, it also aims to teach about the Arctic – and succeeds, not just in showing its beauty, but also in explaining why polar bears need the ice, what they eat, the importance of whales and their communication, the dangers to the animals there, and the scale and size of it.

Sophie’s increasing curiosity and enthusiasm as the book progresses will inspire readers too. An engaging, thought-provoking, and rewarding picture book. Click here to buy.

Millie vs the Machines by Kiera O’Brien

Millie vs the machines

A fascinating debut book that crosses the realms between science fiction and boarding school fiction, with an eerie atmosphere running throughout that gently reminded me of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Set in 2099, in which each student uses their RetinaChip and index finger to see what everyone else is doing, as well as using it to select the right clothes (what’s fashionable that day) and food (adhering to nutrition guidelines) for themselves, as well as using the chip to gain access in and out of transport, school and shops. Millie appears to be a typical 13 year old girl, she checks what her friends are doing, wears the fashionable clothes of the day, and worries about her impending exams. Told in the first person, the reader feels increasingly on Millie’s side.

Except all is not as it seems, and when students start disappearing from their high-security school, Millie wonders if the robots who serve them are really as docile as they should be.

This is a compelling thriller with a spectacular plot twist towards the end. Kiera O’Brien builds suspense throughout the novel, imbuing the school with a sense of entrapment as well as security. Ever since Millie’s accident, she’s been unable to remember everything in the past, so the reader and Millie are only privy to backstory when she attempts to access segments of her memory through the technology of brain streaming.

Of course, with all this technology comes loss of privacy – beautifully drawn out – and also a reliance on robots. There is a new political structure to this world too – with corporations consuming governments, and a small uprising of people who want rights for robots. A marvellously believable and yet strange world, with a pacey plot and sharp references to what technology could do.

Hugely enjoyable, with oodles of wit mixed in with Millie’s fear, and a good understanding of the teenage psyche – teenagers of the future it seems will also fret about schoolwork, fashion and friends. A great read, and another highly recommended novel. 13+ years. You can purchase it here.

 

Gulliver retold by Mary Webb, illustrated by Lauren O’Neill

Gulliver

There are so many versions of the classics tales out there, that it can be very difficult and confusing to pick the right one for your child. As a purist I always like to reach for the original, but for something like Gulliver’s Travels although the story can work for a much younger age group, the original text is more suited to young adults and older.

The poet John Gay wrote to Swift that “it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.” Of course the word Lilliputian even entered the dictionary, but for those who wish to read it firstly as a simple story with simplified satire, an easier version is required, one without Swift’s wordiness.

Mary Webb has retold two of Gulliver’s adventures – his time with the Lilliputians in which he is perceived as a giant, and his time in Brobdingnag where the people are giants compared to him. Mary retains much of the original humour and satire, Gulliver’s remarks on the futility of war – when the Lilliputians fight their neighbours over the correct way to crack an egg, and keeps in much of Gulliver’s disgust at the way humans behave – especially when they are magnified to the size of giants.

It’s always a pleasure for an author to depict the world seen from a different point of view – in this case either as someone very small, or someone very big. Astute observations can be made about the world when it’s viewed at a distance and from a different perspective. Webb has kept in as much as possible – from Gulliver’s perspective of power to his toileting habits.

Lauren O’Neill’s illustrations fit the story very well. A slightly muted grey/blue tinge holds sway over every page, and bold reds illuminate specific features such as flags, sails, capes and arrow tips. There is a good amount of detail, and fabulous drawings of old-fashioned clothes and sail boats, which give clues to the reader as to when the book was written.

The very small introduction to Swift’s book on the contents page is particularly excellent. It describes in the simplest and most concise language what Swift was trying to achieve, and what lessons can be extrapolated from the tales.

This is a lovely edition that can be enjoyed shared with a parent, or read alone. The red ribbon to mark page position is a well-spent printing cost, and makes the book a good gift option. Buy here from Waterstones.