dance

What My Pupils Have Taught Me About Writing: A Guest Blog by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaA couple of weeks ago my book of the week was No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton. An astute, moving novel about a refugee, drawing on influences from Noel Streatfield to Pamela Brown, it publishes today, at a time when the media is talking about how many adults are reading children’s books, and why. One of the reasons, of course, is that we adults can learn so much from the children around us – their views are fresh and often untainted, their hope more sustained, their outlook less jaded. Many children’s authors start as teachers, reading other children’s books and picking up dialogue or character traits from the children populating their classrooms. Catherine Bruton is one such author: teaching and writing. Here, she outlines what her pupils have taught her about writing:

Being an English teacher is a great privilege. I get to spend all day talking books and writing with young people. Ok, sometimes we have to do grammar and learn how to jump through GCSE exam hoops and write timed A Level essays, but the rest of the time we read and write and talk about stories and poems and words and ideas.  And for everything I’ve managed to teach in over 20 years at the chalkface, my pupils have taught me a hundred times more. Here are three of the biggest lessons I have learned.

  1. Never underestimate young readers.

Reading books together means we end up talking about  all the important stuff – love and hate,  death and despair, loss and longing, family and friendship and freedom and growing up – books cover it all. And my pupils show me daily how open-minded, how thoughtful, how receptive young people are – often much more so than adult readers. I learn so much from the way they react to books and characters – from their openness to new ideas – from the new and changing perspectives they bring to texts each time we read them.  Which is probably why I don’t shy away from big topics in my books (terrorism and Islamophobia in We Can be Heroes; family breakdown and reality TV in Pop!; urban poverty and institutional racism in I Predict a Riot; refugees and most recently the migrant crisis in No Ballet Shoes in Syria) My pupils teach me never to underestimate my readership – and that’s a great lesson as a writer.

  1. Go with the flow!

Teaching creative writing to young people has taught me so much! The youngest writers I teach bring an energy and excitement to writing tasks that I wish I could bottle and imbibe (or sell – I’d make a fortune!) Whatever prompt I bring, whatever idea I suggest, they are immediately fizzing with ideas – ideas which pour out of them unfiltered, uncensored, unquestioned.  They don’t second guess themselves, they don’t question their right to tackle a particular topic, or their ability to realise their vision – you certainly don’t hear young writers  debating what the market predicts for publishing trends!  They trust their imaginations, they enjoy their ideas, they are playful, unfettered and free – and it is glorious to behold. As you get older and more self-conscious/ self-critical that joy is incredibly easy to lose, but my pupils remind me how central it is to the process. Writing is work but it can also be like play – and a degree of abandonment is necessary to get into the state of ‘flow’ which is when the best ideas come pouring out. So I try to remind myself that there will be time to edit later, time for apostrophes and self-doubt later, time to interrogate the concept later (time to dust later!) – sometimes you need to go with the flow and allow yourself to enjoy it!

  1. Learn to love your internal critic.

As my students get older I witness the arrival of their ‘internal critics’. It’s a stage all young writers go through, which tends to hit around adolescence, and it leads them to question themselves, to doubt their creative impulses, to fear failure, to worry about how their writing will be received. Sadly, for many young people this is the moment when they stop writing – and many adult writers find themselves paralysed by similar sentiments! But as I try to explain to my pupils (and remind myself!)  it means they are coming of age as a writer, because the ability to be analytical, critical, objective about your work is absolutely necessary to the editing process. As Dorothea Brande explains in ‘Becoming a Writer’ an author needs two heads – the creative head and the editing head. They need to be kept apart as much as possible but they are BOTH necessary to crafting a successful piece of work. I advise pupils to put work aside for a period before returning to it with an objective critical frame of mind and I try to follow my own advice and learn when to shut out the internal critic – and when to invite her in. It’s not always easy though!

So, a huge thank you to all the wonderful young people I have had the privilege to teach over the years – and who have taught me more than they can ever know! Mrs B (or Miss P!) loves you all!

With thanks to Catherine Bruton. No Ballet Shoes in Syria publishes today and you can read my review here, and buy the book here

The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle, illustrations by Kim Geyer

the secret starlingSetting is of great importance in most literature, and at first I read The Secret Starling with confusion, then with compulsion and ultimately joy.

The story begins with Clara, being raised with a strict routine under the watchful eyes of a series of governesses hired by her generally neglectful and uncaring uncle, in Braithwaite Manor, a place seemingly disintegrating before her eyes. Artefacts disappear, the grounds are unkempt, and food seems scarce – Cook making do with basic ingredients.

Braithwaite Manor seems extraordinarily reminiscent of Misslethwaite Manor from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which Eagle even refers to within the text, explaining how it is Clara’s favourite book, although there is no secret garden at Braithwaite. Indeed, the metaphor of Misslethwaite Manor is extended here too. There is no potential for growth at Braithwaite (indicated by the lack of secret garden), but both houses are gloomy, shut up, disused, representative of repression or stifled creativity, and the moors in both represent wild freedom.

However, Clara’s uncle grants her this freedom early on, depositing her in the nearby village, and abandoning her to her own devices. It was at this point that I realised the book wasn’t set in some Edwardian era, as The Secret Garden, but is in fact, set in the 1970s, clues being Clara’s shiny fifty pence piece gifted by Cook, the general modernity of the village, and the Queen on the throne.

Clara is joined by Peter, who feels far more up-to-date, a modern child raised in London who is street-savvy and wordly-wise. He is visiting from London, where he lives with his adoptive grandmother in a tower block. Together, Clara and Peter at first make the most of having a manor house to play in without adults, before realising that there is a mystery in the heart of their story – and they set off to London to discover why Clara’s uncle is selling the house, why he’s abandoned her, and what the whole story has to do with Clara’s mother and a ballet shoe.

Before long, this intertextualised novel turns into the most exciting chase to undercover a deeper mystery, involving searching a library for old newspapers, riding the underground, meeting Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer, and outwitting and escaping from the most dastardly villains – good old-fashioned types with no scruples and definitely people who care nothing for child welfare!

The conclusion is satisfyingly old-school too – identities uncovered, new relationships formed, and a definite nod to Noel Streatfield and the canon of children’s literature. However, as well as these nods to those that have gone before her, Judith Eagle brings a lovely modern sensibility to her fiction. Peter, in particular, is independent and resilient, although his knowledge and freedom of getting round London on his own does perhaps speak more to the 1970’s London child than today’s.

The objects and places that root this book in the 1970s will feel terribly old-fashioned to today’s young reader, although of course quite familiar to the older reader reviewer! What at first seemed like an Edwardian children’s book to me, then transpired to be from the 1970s, shows that perhaps society has changed exponentially from the 1970s to now, and that the 1970s feel closer to 1910 than they do to 2019.

In Eagle’s fictional world, nothing and nobody is as they seem to Clara, and she has to learn whom to trust, and delve into her own knowledge and past to discover who she really is. In the end though, no matter what era the children are living through, the same attributes hold inherent value: truth, love and loyalty.

This is a cracking pacey novel, written with assurance and with a distinct nod to classic children’s literature. Suggest for age 9+. You can buy it here.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaOne of the most important skills reading teaches us, albeit subliminally most of the time, is that age-old question: ‘What must it feel like to be you?’, or ‘empathy’. The word empathy stems from the Ancient Greek, em – in, pathos – feeling. In fact, our usage of the word has increased, in particular from the 1950’s onwards. This is interesting, as most people might feel that in recent years our feelings of empathy have waned.

Because of course, as our world becomes more global, our acceptance of others seems to decline. Despite the fact that our high streets look the same, we drink the same brands, own the same clothes and do the same jobs, we keep recognising and highlighting our differences. Sometimes recognising difference is good, but when used against people, it is not. Identity politics has never seemed such a loaded term. Setting us straight, is this insightful and winning new novel from Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Eleven-year-old Aya could live anywhere. She has a father and mother, a little brother, and a huge passion for ballet, which she learns under the tutelage of Madame Belova in her dance studio near home. However, that’s Aya’s previous life. In Aleppo. Since the war, she has had to flee, and the reader meets her as she seeks asylum in Britain. When she stumbles across a ballet class in the community centre in which her family is seeking help with their asylum application, the instructor recognises her talent, and her situation. Before long, Aya is fighting for a ballet scholarship, a place in Britain, and contact with her lost father. Luckily for her, she has more than one empathetic English resident on her side.

This nuanced gentle portrayal of a young Syrian girl is a fantastic read and an eye-opening book. Bruton successfully shows her roundedness and that of the characters around her. Aya has had to take over and assume a great deal of adult responsibility in the wake of her mother’s traumatised state – the loss of Aya’s father and the journey has been too much. Aya takes great care of her baby brother Moosa, fights for their rights, and also tries to navigate the delicate balance of still being a child, and adapting to life in a foreign country.

The girls in the ballet class are also beautifully brought to life, but play a very distinct role within the novel. It is their attitudes (and changing attitudes) to Aya that inform the reader and will start to pose questions in the reader’s mind. Here, with their youth and naivety making them susceptible both to what they’ve been told by elders, but also making them more open to Aya, they come to discover the differences between refugees and asylum seekers, but also come to understand the cyclical role of history through their ballet teacher, Miss Helena.

Aya’s situation calls to mind Miss Helena’s own past – her own refugee status in the Second World War, as she fled Nazi Germany and found a home in England. Her experiences, although very different from Ava’s, show how time moves on, but the same wounds are inflicted. By that token though the same wrongs can be corrected – through kindness and empathy:

“Perhaps if history was always repeating itself – wars and families fleeing their homes; persecution, refugees – then other stories recurred too: stories of kindness, sacrifice, generosity.”

Through this very stark quote, Bruton also pulls the reader into the stories that have preceded No Ballet Shoes in Syria, and those to which she refers in her introduction – Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, the books of Lorna Hill and Pamela Brown and many more.

Alongside Aya’s gradual acceptance into the ballet class, Bruton flashbacks through Aya’s journey from Syria to Britain – interlaying the text with memories. This slow revealing of Aya’s past is like the slow learning of friendship – a gentle discovery of the other person, helping us to know and understand what they have been through, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

At the same time as the reader’s growing awareness of Aya’s past, Aya slowly learns about the country she’s come to – the accents, the food, the different ways the children live and behave, and also the similarities – in particular the global language of dance.

But perhaps my favourite element of the novel is the idea of community. It is not carelessness that sets the world of form-filling and yet also ballet classes within a community centre. Bruton cleverly shows the reader all the different forms of community that exist, and how useful they are for us as human beings to reach across the divide. The community of asylum seekers themselves, helping and looking out for each other, and slowly replacing the community they have lost in leaving home. The community of ballet dancers, all helping each other to improve and succeed. The community of global dance – the fact that Miss Helena recognises and knows about Aya’s dance teacher from Syria. And of course, the global community of human beings and how by recognising ourselves in each other, we can come together and accept and invite difference.

To assuage any fears about getting Aya’s voice wrong, Bruton took the opportunity to work with Bath welcomes Refugees and Bristol Refugee Rights in the writing of the book and her research sparkles throughout. She’s also the alter ego of Cate Shearwater, the author of Somersaults and Dreams, and her ability to see dance, creativity, and sport as outlets of expression and emotion are very apparent.

The book is published on 2nd May and you can pre-order and buy this story of hope here.

The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton, illustrated by Angela Barrett

the restless girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

No Angry Birds Here

It’s walk to school week this week. I’m one of those smug people who walk to school every day, but although the walk is the same, what we see and hear changes from day to day, season to season. There’s traffic of course, but a field to stroll across too, and that’s where we see wildlife. We skip over the slugs, avoid squashing the snails, dart away from dogs, and flap at flies. But we see some beautiful birds, so here are five fiction books – one for each school day this week – about birds!

dave pigeon

Monday: Dave Pigeon by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Not unlike The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp, Haddow has written a riotously funny book from the point of view of a pigeon – in fact the strapline betrays the fact that the book is almost a manual for pigeons – ‘How to Deal with Bad Cats and Keep (most of) Your Feathers.’ Dempsey’s hilarious pigeon on the front, wrapped in bandages, declares in a speech bubble that this is the best book you’ll ever read. It is certainly one of the funniest.

Pigeons Dave and Skipper are friends. But their common enemy is Mean Cat, and through the book they relay (in narrative and conversational speech bubbles) their attempt to defeat the cat and oust it from its comfortable home with Human Lady – taking the cat’s place, especially because the Human Lady has the nice biscuits with jam in the middle. The text reads in part through speech bubbles, but even when there is traditional narrative, it’s interspersed by the two pigeons bantering as they attempt to tell the story.

Their plans to outwit Mean Cat grow more and more absurd, but are always extremely funny. The pigeon’s point of view and language is exceptionally rendered with silly humour and observation:

“I lay back on the lawn. The grass dazzled greener, the sky shone bluer and the washing line looked lineier. Life was cat-free and felt birdrilliant!”

With a surprising ending, and equally comical illustrations from Dempsey, this is a title for younger readers to grab and adore. Look in particular for the full page illustrations in which the pigeons wait for rain. For ages 6+. Fly to your copy here.

tufty

Tuesday: Tufty by Michael Foreman
A gentle picture book about losing one’s family but finding a mate in Michael Foreman’s new book. As with many of his illustrations, they feel traditional – rendered first as sketches and then painted.

Tufty is placed firmly in London – he’s a duck that lives in the middle of the lake near the royal palace – in a nice touch the human royalty are drawn as being rather birdlike, and are addressed by the Mother Duck as ‘The Royal Duck and Duckess.’ But the story isn’t really about royalty – it tells the tale of Tufty flying south for winter, but losing his family in the process.

Perhaps an environmental comment lies within, as Tufty flies beautifully over Hyde Park – the Albert Memorial depicted lovingly from a bird’s eye view, but then the small duck gets lost among the cranes and towering buildings of London. The orange cranes and glass buildings are distinctive by their lack of distinction from each other.

Tufty is rescued by a homeless man, and then eventually finds his own duck mate back near the palace. The scenes of nature feel homely and gentle, with a wash of colours across the sky that reflect in the lake. All in all, an uplifting story – young readers will like the homeless man’s hollow in the tree, and the tenderness of finding a home, wherever it may be. Take one home with you here.

swan boy

Wednesday: Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan

Swans and metamorphosis have long gone together – from narrative roots in Leda and the Swan to Russian folk stories such as The White Duck, and the Grimm’s Six Swans, as well as the ballet Swan Lake, and the contemporary film Black Swan.

Nikki Sheehan infuses her latest book with magic realism. She tells of a boy grieving for his father and suffering the agonies of starting a new school, and yet weaves in subtle fantasy and magic by gradually layering swan attributes and feathers on his body at the same time as an inspirational teacher at school persuades him to dance in her production of Swan Lake.

The story works because the contemporary London setting, the character of Johnny and his mother and brother, as well as his peers around him, feel so real that long before the swan metamorphosis becomes an issue, the reader is sucked into the story. The writing is so solid and the characters so rounded that its even believable that bully Liam and his cronies, and Johnny become fully immersed in a Matthew Bourne type production of a ballet to be performed in front of the school.

If anything, Sheehan could have pushed the ‘darkness’ of Johnny’s discovery of feathers on his body a little further – but the novel wins hands down in its portrayal of his character – his rising to the responsibility of caring for his little brother Mojo (who himself is fully realised with his penchant for drawing and his own reaction to his father’s death), and also in Johnny’s realisation that friendship takes work and sacrifice. The slight shift to Liam’s point of view didn’t garner my sympathy, but the story as a whole was compelling and page-turning.

This is a good poignant study of the effects of bereavement on a family (for this audience) and a solid plot that moves quickly and effortlessly. Thoroughly enjoyable. For 10+ years. Buy a copy here.

seagull and cat

Thursday: The Story of the Seagull and the Cat who taught her to Fly by Luis Sepulveda, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura

Books in translation can be hard to get into – the rhythms and what’s suitable for children can vary country to country – but this quirky story of a seagull (and mainly a cat) is worth persevering with. A gull, stricken in an environmental oil spill, gives birth to an egg, and leaves a dying wish that the cat, Zorba (who is the last animal she sees) nurture her baby and teach it to fly.

As with all good literature, it’s the characters that forge through and make the book. And this cat, together with his gang, is no exception. Completely anthropomorphised, he shoulders the responsibility with pride and a little anxiety, using his friends the Colonel, the Secretario and Einstein – the last of which rapidly searches for answers to everything in an encyclopedia. The cats themselves are fairly eccentric, and owned by even more eccentric humans, and the book is flooded with humour because of this.

The second part is most endearing as the gull hatches and the impetus is on the cats to teach it to fly – they try to study da Vinci’s flying machine for clues. It’s for a mature reader – one who can handle the vocabulary, but underneath that is a beautiful tale of friendship, perseverance and identity, as well as age-old themes of life and death.

Kitamura’s illustrations bring the story to life, adding humour, expression and unique characteristics to each personality – and should be savoured. A classic from Chile. For age 8+ years. Buy it here.

dawn chorus

Friday: The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton

From the complex to the unassuming – this picture book is beautiful by way of its simplicity. Peep hears a beautiful song upon waking and wishes to know what it is. On discovering it’s the Dawn Chorus, he is invited to join in if he can audition. Unfortunately for him, he’s just not an early bird kind of a bird, and fails to turn up on time, then fails to stay awake during the audition the following morning.

Of course it’s not his fault, it turns out he’s a nightingale – and dawn is the wrong time of day for him to sing.

Suzanne Barton has managed to express the beauty of bird song through her renderings of colour in this picture book – from the leaves on the front cover to the luscious harmony of reds, oranges and yellows of the gathered birds of the dawn chorus. Each bird is drawn to be plump with patterned wings and tails – almost collage-like in their depiction. It gives them a cuteness, and yet doesn’t completely sentimentalise them.

Young children will delight in the hanging musical notes in the air, the bird conductor with baton in hand, and the delightfully tender ending. It’s uplifting, a lovely introduction to birds and nocturnal animals, and about persevering for what you want and who you are. Take home your own dawn chorus here.