Book of the Week

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.

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.