bullying

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.

 

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Fish Boy by Chloe Daykin

There aren’t many TV programmes that pull the whole family together for family viewing time any more. Maybe X-Factor or BGT. But one that still has resonance and meaning, and is guaranteed to pull a family crowd, is a documentary from Sir David Attenborough. So when I heard that Fish Boy by debut author Chloe Daykin was about a boy who channelled the voice of Sir David in his head as part of the narration, I was more than intrigued. I was super excited.

For any of you out there who know a boy who is tentative about reading, but gripped by facts of nature or animals, and loves the environment – this is an intriguing premise. However, it’s not quite as I thought, less about channeling the facts of nature, although there is plenty of that, but more an invocation of Sir David’s soothing tones, his lilting voice, his reassurance, and this, above all is what gives Fish Boy its ultimate charm.

Billy is picked on at school, feels and acts like a bit of a loner, and added to that his Mum is sick – an undiagnosed dragging sickness. Living by the sea proves to be his perfect escape, especially as one day a sense of magic seems to come alive under the water, (more than a sense of magic – almost a dreamlike second dimension). Then a new boy starts at school, and changes everything – the way Billy thinks, his time at school, and most importantly how he views his family.

There is an element of surrealism about the book – a large element, in that every time Billy goes swimming he becomes ‘one’ with the fish, swimming with them, communicating with them. For some children, this might be offputting, although if like me, you like a bit of quirkiness chucked in with the realism (think David Almond in particular), then this is the book for you. What could venture into the bizarre and zany, rests beautifully in Daykin’s hands, as her prose is sparkling, unique and captures Sir David Attenborough’s calming and soft overtones. It lulls the reader, and soothes them, so that the overall effect is rather like being underwater.

There’s no satisfying explanation for the adventures under water with the fish, which perversely serves to make the book more satisfying. Some things in life are just unexplained, just mystical, and that’s fine. What is resolved is the friendships and family conundrums.

Most particularly, the resolution between Billy and his mother is poignant, as towards the end she is diagnosed – but more than just having an answer, Billy comes to an acceptance of what’s happening with his family. It’s uplifting and hopeful.

With swirls of humour, as well as some fairly frightening undercurrents, this is a refreshing read – quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently. And what pulled mainly for me was not so much the story, as the fact that Daykin’s prose matches her story – typical modern boy/parent dialogue pared with short sharp pithy prose when swimming – almost as if it’s mimicking the short flap of a gill as a fish breathes – but also all massively imbued with the character of Billy. Clever. Watch out for her second, it’s sure to swim freestyle too. You can buy it here.

The Christmasaurus by Tom Fletcher, illustrated by Shane Devries

christmasaurus

How do I choose which books to review? First and foremost it’s quality. If it’s a good book, then I want to tell the world about it. Sometimes I want to highlight a particular theme or issue, and I want to draw attention to books for all ages (5-14 years) as well as non-fiction. And also, to draw attention to books that sometimes don’t get the marketing limelight.

Quite often I’ll make a decision not to review something that my readers will already know about. I don’t review Roald Dahl books, simply because my readership tend to know about them/own them/borrow them from libraries already. Dahl books secure a lot of media coverage – they don’t need me blowing their whizzpopping trumpet. The same applies to celebrity authors.

But top and foremost in my mind is always quality. If a book is good, then I want to shout about it from the rooftops. No matter who the author is.

Tom Fletcher is one of these so-called celebrity authors. (For younger generations maybe who’ve heard of the pop group McFly – personally I wouldn’t know him if I passed him on the street, but that says more about ME than about him.) Anyway, he is a celebrity, and his book will, no doubt, get top billing/window space in many a bookshop this Christmas.

But I still want to draw your attention to it. Because you might not have heard of it yet, and it’s fabulous, and it made me laugh and cry.

William Trundle’s father loves Christmas. More than anything in the world. And William loves dinosaurs. So when a frozen dinosaur egg hatches in the North Pole right under Santa’s eyes (and bottom), a hybrid is born – the Christmasaurus. Which is just as well, because what William wants most for Christmas is a dinosaur, especially after the rotten year he’s had. But when he wakes up to find what Santa has left him as a present, an amazing adventure begins that will completely change his life.

Fletcher has liberally sprinkled Christmas magic throughout his tale. Although our hero is William Trundle, the story starts in the North Pole with Santa and his elves, who make merry and speak in rhyme and are rather reminiscent of oompa loompas – also in awe of their leader, Santa. There is an abundance of joy here, with crumpets, candy canes, toboggan runs, and a North Star-bucks. But all dominated by the hugely jolly Santa – the illustrations are like a warm hug. At times Santa even looks like Aladdin’s genie – all large and wish-awarding.

The tone of the book is appealing too – Fletcher writes with charming style, conversationally talking to the reader with asides (such as implying that everything you read in books is true). It’s not too cute, not too saccharine – but engaging and inviting, so that the child reader feels as if the author is a friend. Sparks of humour fly throughout the text – I’m no child but it made me smile more than once.

William is an endearing protagonist – sadly bullied for being in a wheelchair, and evoking pathos because he has that children’s book burden of a dead parent – yet he is not pathetic in any way. The reader sees his charm and goodness as well as his strengths, and cheers him on well before his adventure really starts. The Christmasaurus is also hugely likeable, with ambitions to fly like the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh, and he wishes for a friend – he appears just as a child would and this is why he works as a character. It helps that every description is magical – from the colour of the dinosaur’s shiny rainbow iridescent skin to William’s shiny red dinosaur-decorated wheelchair.

The plot is paced well – much happens, which warrants the book’s fairly hefty size, and there are some great twists, but it’s the little asides and observations that give the book its winsome character.

“Brenda sniffed hard again and swallowed the snot that had frozen up her nose from sitting in the cold for so long.”

“The ropes weren’t just twisted and tangled. They were twangled.”

But also Tom Fletcher’s observations on life – those little life lessons dropped in children’s books that makes them magical:

“He knew it was the right thing to do, and sometimes the right things to do are the hardest.”

“A friend is for life, not just for Christmas.”

The text is brought to life not only by playing with fonts – bolds, italics, large type, but also the detail of snowflake page numbers, and Devries’ marvellous illustrations – fantastically emotional and fun too.

This book even made me cry at one point – Santa points out with some emotion the wonder of children themselves, and it is perhaps by getting to the very essence of this that Fletcher succeeds in his wonderful Christmas book. If children are magic, as he describes, because they can create worlds in their imaginations, because they have the power to see the best in things, and the power to believe, then children’s books are the epitome of this power. And this one harnesses it with pride. Santa’s sleigh will be a heavy one this year I think – sacks packed with luscious hardback books. For children aged… (who am I kidding? – for everyone!) You can buy it here.

Teaching Technology Safety

Do you have a child at primary school? Then it’s likely you’ll have been invited to an e-safety evening. Perhaps your child will have experienced an Internet Safety Day, or you’ll have signed a form with them about acceptable use of electronic devices. But how much of the information is actually absorbed? One of the best ways to teach is through story – narrative telling helps our brains to process information. By weaving information into a narrative, our brains are more likely to make a connection with it – likening it to our own experiences, inviting an emotional response. A narrative actually switches on biochemicals in our brain.

Last year an excellent title, Chicken Clicking by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross came into the marketplace, explaining how meeting strangers on the internet wasn’t necessarily a good move. This year, Troll Stinks! by the same team talks about sending nasty messages – trolling someone on the phone.

troll-stinks

Troll Stinks by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
In a subtle way, Chicken Clicking references the fairy tale canon, using inspiration from Chicken Licken to tell its tale. Troll Stinks is even more blatant in its reliance on the reader’s prior knowledge of the story The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

Billy, the goat, and his best friend Cyril, are playing with a mobile phone they’ve found. They take silly selfies, film funny things and generally have fun. Until they decide to send text messages to Troll. They’ve heard from Grandpa Gruff that trolls are bad, live under bridges and terrorize goats, so they send some rather mean messages to Troll. But when they decide to take a nasty picture of Troll and blast it all over the Internet, they stumble upon something rather surprising. And realise that being mean over the phone/through the virtual world is a horrible thing to do.

Of course, Jeanne Willis shows enormous imaginative flair in dealing with the subject, creating a really great story filled with humour and pace, all told in a rather delicious rhyme so that it’s easy to read aloud and easy to absorb. Andersen Press have enhanced her text superbly by pairing her with Tony Ross again – who himself adds intense detail and humour to each page and each situation, so that this a fun story rather than a heavy handed message.

Billy Goat hides the phone from his parents, knowing they wouldn’t allow it – and Tony Ross illustrates the goat parents with huge panache – a sumptuous living room complete with a portrait of an ancestral goat, and the newspaper strewn on the floor.

Throughout the book, Billy and Cyril’s attention is firmly fixated on the screen, with an intense stare – although one which doesn’t alienate the reader. The familiarity of Ross’s style (from his Horrid Henry illustrations) are morphed into goat characters here, in his own inimitable thorny style – one could almost imagine Henry holding the phone rather than Billy, but the enhanced billy goat grins and hooves make this even funnier than if it were people of course. And the denouement when it comes is equally well depicted. The goats look sheepish, their lesson is learnt. And not only that, but they turn to a more friendly, less electronic, game.

It’s filled with fun, pathos and drama.You can buy it here.

(Please note that the copy I reviewed was not final)

chicken-clicking

Chicken Clicking by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
If anything, the lesson in this book is even harsher, despite the illustrations being much softer.

Set firmly in a farmyard, a small mischievous chicken goes into the farmer’s house when he is asleep and browses the internet. She develops a tendency for buying goods, although is rather generous with her gifting. She loves the diamond watch she buys herself, and bags and shoes, but she also buys scooters for sheep, skates for the pigs, and sends the bull on holiday.

Her shopaholic-ism is an issue, but trouble begins when she seeks a friend online – sending pictures of herself and giving her name and age. In the end, she goes off to meet her lovely new friend, without telling her mother and father – and it turns out her new ‘friend’ has rather ill intentions. The ending of the book is brilliant for discussion with a young primary school reader – but if you’re clever, you’ll show the youngster the back page of the book which illustrates the young chick running to safety afterall!

This book too has Willis’ sharp snappy rhymes, which possess a perfect rhythmic scan. Tony Ross has gone to town on the illustrations here too. Deviating from his usual style, these are far more fluffy and innocent, as befits our protagonist chick – but it’s the humour that packs a punch, along with the internet message.

The chick buys the bull a holiday in Spain – Tony Ross illustrates him reclining on a beach, whilst next to him a small boy in swimming trunks waves a red towel. Chick’s overbuying in shoes and bags is depicted by Ross’s brilliant illustration of the farmer blaming his wife for the overspend.

This is a rather wonderful book, and with Troll Stinks!, a great pair of books that seems to nail the message of internet safety. Buy Chicken Clicking here.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Wolf Hollow final cover

In a question and answer article this week, Philip Pullman said that “it’s important that the general reader sees children’s books being discussed intelligently.” I fret every week that I am talking intelligently enough about the children’s books I have read, but today’s book of the week definitely deserves intelligent discussion. In fact, it is one of the most intelligent books from any genre that I’ve read this year.

The reason I point to general readers is that sometimes children’s books are looked upon rather scornfully by them – as if children’s books are a sub-section of publishing. But this book, with its clear allusion to To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me yet again that there are some books that deserve a wider audience than the ‘marketing’ placement they are given. The Catcher in the Rye would be labelled as YA by today’s sales teams, Frankenstein as scifi, Wuthering Heights as romance. I’m being flippant, but I want to point out that just because a book is shelved in a particular place in a bookshop, doesn’t mean it should only be read by those who look at that shelf.

Wolf Hollow is a wonderfully evocative and searingly honest coming-of-age story about twelve year old Annabelle, growing up in wartime rural Pennsylvania. This gracefully written, memorable novel will inevitably draw comparisons with To Kill A Mockingbird (the publishers do this on the cover) for its themes of injustice, prejudice and a misjudged recluse, but it stands on its own strength as an outstandingly written story, one that both commands the reader to turn the page, and yet also to wallow in the beauty of the prose.

Newcomer Betty Glengarry invites trouble as soon as she steps foot in town, bullying Annabelle in small ways that shockingly escalate with speed. But when the culprit for the violence is deemed not to be Betty, but blamed upon veteran Toby, a recluse who spends his time walking the landscape with three guns, Annabelle realises it is up to her to face down the accusations and demand justice.

There is much brilliance in this compelling tale. Annabelle is not only believable and likeable, but her voice is strong and distinctive – she is so cleverly written that the reader can draw out the difference between what she says and does with what she thinks. She often mulls over a conversation directly afterwards. Her observations about Toby are empathetic and wise beyond her years, almost as if her thoughts were older than her actions:

“An odd and frustrating way to look at the world, but I was not Toby, and he was not me.”

Wolk draws her as empathetic and sensitive without resorting to any sentimentality. She is the perfect coming-of-age child – aware of her own limitations and aware of the conflict as she strives for independence. She knows when to seek parental help and advice, and when she won’t be heard:

“If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?”

Annabelle’s gradual self-awareness amid the moral complexity of the situation is fresh, alluring and tense. Wolk also demonstrates her prowess in writing understated characters – a quietness exudes from both Annabelle’s father, and from Toby; yet with a few words and expressions their entire personalities are ensnared upon the page.

Her descriptions are exquisite: “the sun somewhat hazy, as if it wore a silk stocking”, and create an atmospheric setting. And the rhythm of the writing is assured too – crafted with attention to the smallest detail in sentence length and phrase, the building of apprehension with shifts in tense – reading the words is like sampling a delicacy.

And yet it is easy to read, and children will relate directly to Annabelle, just as readers did to Scout Finch. It’s a book that works on many levels.

There is the suggestion of raw violence, as well as some real damage wrought, and a growing awareness that the adult world is grey, as opposed to the black and white childlike perception of right and wrong. Trusting the readership to grow as Annabelle does, this is a stunningly intelligent debut novel. It deserves to be read by young and old.

Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

Football Fever

Friday saw the start of the EURO2016 tournament. Cue great excitement in certain households, particularly those that are fed up with talking about the ‘other’ European issue. Although I hate to be gender divisive when talking about books, it does seem to follow that boys who are reluctant readers and prefer to play football can be enticed with a football book. Those of you who follow me weekly will be tired of my anecdote that my son learned to read from the Sky Sports News tickertape – but it’s true. I personally adore football (season ticket holder from the age of 13yrs until it was nabbed by my son), so as a girl into football and children’s books – these newly published titles won me over.

callum new team

Scotland Stars FC: Calum’s New Team by Danny Scott, illustrated by Alice A Morentorn

For a slightly more integrationist blog, this is a book about football set in Scotland – but completely suitable and enjoyable for England fans too (or anyone). This first in the series tells the story of Calum, newly moved to the area and struggling for a place on the school football team. It doesn’t help that another child’s parent runs the team (somewhat unfairly), and that Calum doesn’t have astroturf boots – but these things are soon remedied and it becomes all about the skill.

Written by Danny Scott, who works for the Scottish Book Trust, and is a huge football fan – the love for the game and for literacy shines through the text. It’s easy to read, with a manageable vocabulary and a plot that moves along quickly and realistically.

Interspersed with zazzy illustrations from Alice A Morentorn and complete with trading cards inside, this is a young football fan’s dream story. It touched a nerve here – the things mentioned in the book absolutely happen – which makes it completely relatable. The characters are sympathetically drawn – even Calum’s busy parents. Of course there’s the usual happiness at the end – so many fictional football teams win trophies and beat rivals (in the end) – in real life if you’re a Spurs fan the wait can be a little longer than the time it takes to read a book….

For age 6+ years. A cracking addition to the team. Purchase your copy here. Three titles have been published, and there are more to follow in August.

over the line

Over the Line by Tom Palmer, illustrated by Ollie Cuthbertson

Another brilliant story from Tom Palmer that integrates love for football with historical fiction. Over the Line tells a fictional story about the professional footballers who fought in the First World War. With astute attention to detail and historical research, the story maintains an integrity throughout as it pushes to tell the story of the brave men who fought in the war, but at the same time exploits the passion and drama of the beautiful game.

Jack makes his debut as a professional footballer, but unfortunately for him the year is 1914, and there is huge pressure on the fit young men to sign up for the war effort. Jack bravely does so and shows the same courage and team spirit on the fields in France as on the football pitch. All the time, dreaming of when he can return home to London and play football.

The youth of the boys fighting, the horrors of the front line and the confrontation with death and killing are all embedded within Tom Palmer’s text, but with pathos and tenderness. Jack is a warm and loveable protagonist, and although the reader knows the odds must be stacked against him, the tension is dissipated by the belief in his ability to survive and go on to triumph.

What was particularly compelling was the inner thoughts of Jack, pervading each scene, and giving the reader a good insight into the sights and sounds of war, as well as the feelings behind being picked for a team – even as a professional.

From the team at Barrington Stoke, so it is highly readable and not too long, but also ties in beautifully with Euro 2016 and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. See resources here. Age 8+ years. You can buy the book here.

booked

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Ever since the publication of Crossover, readers have been begging me for a similar title, but about football rather than US-focussed basketball. Kwame Alexander delivers again with this novel in free verse for the teen market, this time with the focus on football rather than basketball.

Twelve year old Nick is the star of the football team, but he struggles to keep his head in the game when things at home start to break down. Add to the mix a school bully and a potential girlfriend, and Nick begins to see that although football may be everything, sometimes it has to take the back foot.

Kwame Alexander’s word play is always fresh and exciting, and this novel doesn’t let the team down – it continues in brilliant free verse, using text messages, dialogue and even t-shirt slogans to move the plot along. There’s a wide-ranging vocabulary, all explained in footnotes, and a mixed relationship with words, as Nick’s Dad insists on him reading a dictionary to better himself, whereas Nick would rather live in the world of texting and football, until the girl he likes explains how wonderful books and words can be.

Alexander’s characters are all well-rounded, even from such sparse poetry – with background stories for them all, and a wonderfully quirky school librarian who plays an integral part in Nick’s story, and a brilliantly depicted best friend.

The emotion is raw, emphasised by the use of poetry, and the blank spaces between the words. Nick’s pain comes across strongly; the poem on page 59 is particularly poignant.

The homage to the poet Langston Hughes is noticeable here in the different strands of poetry; the ‘jazz poetry’ that portrays the physicality of sports in particular. Alexander also integrates the titles of each poem into the poetry itself and utilises the white space on the page, all great examples of how much can be said in the implication rather than the spoken word.

There’s not as much football in here as there was basketball in Crossover, and the love for the game doesn’t come across quite as strongly – the sporty poems don’t have quite the same bounce as in the previous book, but the backstory is so emotive and the characters so real that football fan readers will still appreciate the story, and reluctant readers will soak it up. Age 9+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Young football fans might also like to catch CBBC’s adaptation of the Jamie Johnson football books by Dan Freedman. Starting tomorrow, Monday 13 June, at 5pm.

Food for Thought

Do you remember food from childhood books? Winnie the Pooh is synonymous with honey, Paddington with marmalade, the Famous Five with ginger beer. The tiger came for tea, the caterpillar was very hungry, and Narnia wouldn’t have been the same without tea with Mr Tumnus. Food functions as a symbol of togetherness. The OECD found that students who do not eat regularly with their parents are more likely to truant, that children were more likely to be overweight if they didn’t eat with their family at least twice a week (European Congress on Obesity 2014). In a topic close to my heart, researchers found that young children learned 1,000 rare vocabulary words at a family dinner, compared with 143 from a storybook reading (Catherine E Snow and Diane E Beals, 2006).

Three authors have cleverly woven food into their recently published family stories. Do have a look at each very different title.

library of lemons

A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

A sad and touching middle grade story about ten year old Calypso. She lives with her father, and they are both grieving for the death of Calypso’s mother. Her father is suffering so much that his mental health deteriorates and he starts to obsess over lemons for a book he is writing on the History of the Lemon.

Calypso has been told by her father to nourish her inner strength – to show the world a steely exterior rather than exposing her emotions – so she nourishes herself with books and stories. In a compellingly poignant portrayal, Calypso’s Dad is neglectful because of his all-consuming grief, and the cupboards in the kitchen are starkly empty.

Although a loner, and Cotterill portrays this part of Calypso particularly well, leaving the reader feeling that solitude is not a black and white issue – there is loneliness and then there is wanting to be more solitary than others – Calypso does find a friend in Mae, and through her, a family, complete with family meals, and warm, giving parents who expose what is so severely lacking in her own home circumstances. The scenes with Mae shine with affection and are particularly engaging.

Jo Cotterill writes with emotional insight and tenderness in this well-crafted novel. From her clever perversion of the lemons – usually such bright, alluring, wonderfully scented fruits – she twists the metaphor so that the lemons are hidden and grow hard – revealing what happens when fruit is kept in dark places, and when emotions are left hidden in dark places rather than expressed and managed.

By contrasting darkness and light, inner and outer, family/friendship as opposed to loneliness, Jo Cotterill reveals how Calypso can come out of herself and forge a new way forwards for herself and her father. It’s compelling reading and draws on the point that there are always some adults on hand to help a child through such a crisis – from friends to a support network of child carers.

There are some good insights too about children wanting to please their parents and meet expectations, the benefits of writing as a way of venting emotion, and of course, as you will guess from the title, a liberal sprinkling of literary references, and a paean to reading and its comfort.

The characters feel well developed, the ending is not too saccharine – it’s uplifting but with a hint of realism that grief/depression cannot just be turned off like a switch. Easy to read, not too sentimental – this is a bittersweet novel. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

caramel hearts

Caramel Hearts by ER Murray

A slightly older, much grittier read, Caramel Hearts tells the story of 14 year old Liv. Liv resides with her older sister while her mother recovers in a unit for alcoholics. Whilst her mother is away, Liv discovers a homemade book of recipes, written in her mother’s hand, and clearly at a time in the past of love and happiness. Liv endeavours to make the recipes within, in the hope that some of that love will come dripping back into her life. Sadly, at the same time, she has to contend with issues at school, lack of money, and her own anger, which comes flooding out of her at the slightest tension or confrontation.

This is such a character-led book that the reader feels invested in Liv from the start, which is important, as Liv doesn’t behave brilliantly. ER Murray’s portrayal of her – her inability to keep her emotions in check, even when necessary – her spontaneous and often not very well thought out decision making, and her wish to fit in, lead her to make some particularly unwise decisions, and yet she garners intense understanding from the reader precisely because she is so well-defined and so real in so many ways.

ER Murray is good at drawing the distinction between right and wrong, and yet at the same time, giving the reader those grey areas of discovery as teens grow and learn which path to choose.

There are some excellent scenes – and a particularly disturbing case of hardcore bullying, as well as the problems and uncertainty that go with being the child of an alcoholic.

Secondary characters are also nicely drawn – no one is completely good or bad – and, as with A Library of Lemons, there is a lovely supporting cast of adults who can help if given the chance – including a particularly wonderful dinner lady.

A love for food comes through of course – the recipes from the mother’s books are sprinkled throughout the text and seem easy to try, and there are references to music too.

The book is all about learning to stand up for what’s right – doing the right thing, but it makes no claims to provide easy solutions or quick fixes. As with the previous book reviewed, mental health – in this case, alcoholism, is dealt with carefully – it’s a long road, and there are no certainties.

Saying that, the ending is also uplifting – friendships are nurtured and thrive, food can be an equalizer, and forgiveness can be healing.

In the same way that A Library of Lemons toyed with darkness and light, this is sweet and sour – the joy that can come from finding a hobby/skill in the baking, the joy of sharing food with friends and family, and the sweetness of nostalgia for their mother in a more positive light, but also the sourness of doing the wrong thing, bullying, getting into trouble and not knowing how to get out of it. Age 12+ years. You can purchase it here.

Sweet Pizza

Sweet Pizza by G R Gemin

For younger readers, with bite-size chapters, is the tale of Joe, a young boy growing up in Bryn Mawr, South Wales. Joe’s mother runs a café, inherited from her father and his parents – who were Italian migrants before the Second World War. The café is failing to make money, and the book follows Joe’s attempts to discover his Italian heritage and make the café great again.

As with the other books featured, food plays a strong role in this book, with Joe’s fascination with learning to cook, the other youths’ addiction to the unhealthy ‘chicken box’ takeaways over the road, and Joe’s cousin Mimi who visits from Italy, and seasons the town with her good looks, but also her belief in fresh ingredients, healthy eating and the healing power of a good meal.

The tone of this novel is hard to pin down – it’s written so starkly, so matter-of-fact and mainly through dialogue, and yet somehow Joe’s feelings do shine through. For this age group the sparseness of the language works quite well, and moves the plot along quickly, although personally I would have preferred some rounding of the parental figures’ characters and a little more detail and description, but saying that, this is an important book for the following reasons.

The backbone of the novel comes from Joe’s grandfather. During the course of the book he suffers a stroke and is hospitalised, but his recordings of his memories of wartime Wales are played as a backdrop throughout the story, and the warmth flows mainly from these recollections.

Joe learns, as does the reader, not only the facts about Italian migrants in Wales during the war – the terrible cost when they were interned during the war, but ultimately the kindness of the community that surrounded the immigrants in Wales.

The gradual realisation that history can teach us something, that having a thriving immigrant community can lend so much colour and vibrancy to a town, and that the kindness of a community can see people through hard times, is a valuable lesson to both Joe and young readers. It’s an interesting study to compare immigrant experiences then and now, and debate the meaning of patriotism, migrants, heritage, and community.

Gemin weaves food and taste throughout his book – from the Italian food to the Polish supermarket across the road, and the coming together at family mealtimes as well as the community (Joe interacts with bus drivers, the doctor’s receptionist, and a whole host of other figures who make up his town). There are also some well-handled incidences in which Joe’s mum is worried about her son’s weight, and steers him away from the greasy takeaways.

An infusion of opera and its stories pervades the text too, and the mouth-watering descriptions of the coffee aroma and bubbling tomato sauces leave the reader lusting after their own home-made Italian meal. Bravissimo. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

 

 

 

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen by Susin Nielsen

henry k larsen

People write journals for all kinds of reasons – to record history, to express emotions, to confide without doing it face-to-face etc. Authors also use the device of journal telling for all kinds of reasons – to explore a character’s deep emotions that they would never reveal to anyone else – to explore a character’s unreliability – for do we tell the truth even when we are writing just for ourselves?

Susin Nielsen has manipulated the journal style for her latest novel, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen. It can be difficult to hold the attention or suspend belief when reading a novel purposefully written as a journal, because everything has to be reported in past tense as already having happened, and also because the dialogue has to be written as reported rather than immediate.

Henry’s journal is reluctant because his therapist has suggested that he keep a journal to help him process what happens to him in the aftermath of a terrible incident. The reader knows from the outset that this is a troubled young man, but the incident that led to his therapy is merely mentioned as ‘IT’ in the text. Only gradually do snippets of information become apparent, as Henry’s thoughts mean that he cannot hide ‘IT’ from himself any longer.

The reader does know that Henry has moved with his father to a new city, where they can live fairly anonymously. He starts a new high school, makes a couple of friends, and does his best to avoid the nosy neighbours in his new apartment block. The reader also discovers that his Dad is also not coping particularly well, and that his mother is living elsewhere, until she is well enough to join them. It’s not a happy family.

The past gradually seeps out through incidences in the present, and Henry reports it all, including (be warned) descriptions of extreme bullying, death and violence. The occasional emotion is written and then crossed out, as if to say that even admitting the truth to himself is difficult.

This is an interesting tale of a normal thirteen year old, disturbed by hugely violent events in his family’s past, and trying to come to terms with how to cope and define himself after the event. It’s also a powerful tale of not judging someone by appearances, bullying, the preciousness and at times, difficulty, of being a sibling, and the wonder that is a loyal friend.

There’s much to admire in this compelling tale, which reminded me at times of Rebecca Stead; the device of having a reader see more than the narrator of the tale sees. It profiles a troubled protagonist – this one slightly chubby, red-haired – not the high school jock by any means, but also not a typical outsider. Terrible things happening to an average boy, which is why it strikes a chord.

Neilsen’s writing is precise and stirring. Through a captivating teen voice, she elicits great emotion, and explores a difficult area. The characters are all convincing – from the dorky friend Farley, to the wonderfully depicted neighbours – seen at first as stereotypes in Henry’s eyes – the Indian man and the lonely blonde woman – but then they come to life with their own distinct histories and foibles the more Henry gets to know them.

Every scenario felt real, every character well-fleshed. Moreover, for this reader, some spectacular resonances – a reference to an old film called Ordinary People, and a clear inspiration from Wally Lamb – which meant that I personally felt an affinity to this young adult novel. Although for younger readers, references to this film, and Fatal Attraction may be unknown. It’s a dark read, with only occasional glimpses of wry humour, but one well-worth experiencing. Henry might have been reluctant, but this reader wasn’t. You can buy it here.

Anti-bullying Week

It’s national anti-bullying week. I have wanted to bring these two books to your attention for some time – they are brilliantly written, fantastic stories, which shout to be read. They both feature a group of bullies – one more prevalent in the story than the other, but what shines over and above the bullies is the discovery of true friendship.

storm horse

Storm Horse by Nick Garlick

A page turner of a book, Storm Horse is about 12 year old Flip, an orphaned boy, who is taken in by his aunt and uncle, whom he barely knows, on an island off Holland. At first he spends all his time helping out on their farm, but when a terrible storm engulfs the island, Flip shows immense bravery in rescuing a horse from drowning in the sea. He is allowed to keep the horse, provided that he shows he can care for it himself – but the horse is more troublesome than the storm itself.

Under constant menace from a group of local bullies, Flip and his cousin, as well as a ghostly mute girl, must battle against the bullies and the weather to triumph.

The story isn’t set in a specific time, but the atmosphere of the island is of a time past, in which the island’s lifeboat is launched into the sea by horses, music is played on a record player, and life is set at a slower pace. The wonderful community spirit that pervades the island is magical to read about – with farmers volunteering their services for lifeboat work, and everyone knowing and helping each other. It is very much a depiction of a different time and a different place (particularly for modern urban readers.)

There are many strands running through this timeless story – from the way in which Flip finally overcomes the bullies, to the friendships that develop between himself and his cousin and the strange mute girl. Garlick also explores Flip’s friendship with the horse. Storm, which allows Flip to develop self-confidence, self-awareness, and to find solace in this particular friendship as a way of overcoming his grief. It is common in children’s literature for a child’s relationship with an animal to provide a special type of comfort. The power of nature is also a force within the story.

Moreover, the story deals with grief in many ways – from Flip’s grief for his parents to the mute girl’s grief, and the grief of the islanders for the loss of life and horses in a storm, as well as grief for the way of life that might be lost. It was interesting too to see a book deal with adults who are being bullied – and how they overcome this adversity. For 10+ years. Buy it here from Waterstones

butterfly shell

The Butterfly Shell by Maureen White

There is potential bullying of adults in The Butterfly Shell too – but the main bullying happens at school. Maureen White excels with her depictions of female friendships in the early years of secondary school – she is both perceptive and astute as she describes the delicate hierarchies and shifting friendships at school that can be affected by home life, appearance, and self-confidence.

Moreover, the overarching hook as to why the main character, Marie, feels so hit upon is ingenious. Called ‘other Marie’ by the bullies at school, simply because she is not the Marie who is in the popular girls’ group, the damage goes far beyond school, as it is revealed that her parents named her after her older sister, who sadly died as a baby and was called Marie. Of course the bullies at school have no way of knowing this, but the damage is done.

Told in the first person narrative, the reader feels deeply for Marie, even when she acts wrongly, and messes up. In fact, she starts to self-harm, which is portrayed in the most realistic and sympathetic way I have yet encountered in a book for this age group – beginning with the picking of a scab.

The text is simple and minimal, as is the story – but its effect is long-lasting. It shows the consequences of teen girls’ actions, and the incredibly complex relationship between parents and teenagers – the latter wanting to please, and yet also protect their parents, at the same time as still wanting to be ‘parented’ by them. As in Storm Horse, there is a therapeutic relationship with an animal (a dog) too. However, the cleverness of the writing is what penetrates the reader – the plays on words, superstitions, and the understanding of the psychology of teen girls.

Maureen White also incorporates modern technology into her piece about bullying – from Stella’s phone trick, to the intimidating text messages that reach school girls out of school hours and cause untold misery.

The book ends with a great moral conclusion – that it’s good to talk, that self-confidence stops bullies, and that self-harming is never okay. For 12+years. Buy it here from Waterstones.

 

With thanks to Chicken House and O’Brien publishers for sending review copies.